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Economy may stall plans for Citrus Park Drive extension, Lutz-Lake Fern Road widening

If you want quicker access to Westfield Citrus Park mall or relief along Lutz-Lake Fern Road, you may have to wait.

Hillsborough County commissioners said last week that they may pump the brakes on more than $300 million in road and construction projects, including the $67 million Citrus Park Drive extension and the $68 million Lutz-Lake Fern Road widening.

"I mean honestly, it's been teetering for so long," said Donna Suchocki, who lives on Lutz-Lake Fern Road. "I just feel do it or don't do it. The fact that they are putting it on the back burner is just prolonging the agony."

Just 21 months ago, county commissioners approved a half-billion-dollar package to fast-track a bevy of improvements.

Using borrowed funds and money from future sales tax collections, the county planned to extend Citrus Park Drive from Sheldon Road to Countryway Boulevard, and widen Lutz-Lake Fern Road from two to four lanes.

Now they are on a tentative list of projects that could be shelved. A decision won't come until September, but the county began circulating the list during an April 22 budget workshop.

Commission chairman Ken Hagan, who leads the county transportation task force that won approval for the $500 million package, said economic forces are to blame for the turn of events. The forecast for potential sales tax revenue has been "dramatically reduced," he said.

And in April, Moody's Investors Service placed all city and county governments in the United States on negative credit watch. Hillsborough could see a downgrade in its credit rating, which would affect the rate at which the county could borrow money.

"I'm disappointed, but we're in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, and the budget challenges that we are facing are extreme and going to be difficult to deal with," Hagan said. "This is really the first in a series of changes that we're going to experience. You're going to see very, very dramatic reductions in the way that we operate."

So how did two of northern Hillsborough's long-discussed road projects end up on the list?

"Primarily, we were looking for big-ticket items," said Mike Merrill, the county's utility and commerce administrator. "The bigger-denominated projects make it easier to get where you need to be."

The county was going to pony up $63 million for Citrus Park Drive and $38.8 million for Lutz-Lake Fern Road between the Suncoast Parkway and Dale Mabry Highway.

Currently, Citrus Park Drive connects with Gunn Highway just west of the Veterans Expressway, runs south of Westfield Citrus Park mall and stops at a patch of trees on Sheldon Road.

It picks back up just east of Deer Park Elementary, then ends at Countryway Boulevard.

To get to either side of Citrus Park Drive, commuters must drive through busy side streets such as Linebaugh Avenue or S Mobley Road.

A 2.82-mile extension would take cars off those streets and give commuters direct access to the mall, the Veterans Expressway, and shops and restaurants.

But the four-lane road would also pass by Deer Park and through five residential developments — Key West Circle, Mandolin Reserve, Mandolin Estates, Windsor Place and Fawn Ridge.

"It's a blessing if it's delayed," said Barbara Dawes, head of the Fawn Ridge Transportation Task Force, a group that wants the extension as far from homes as possible. "And it's a huge reprieve for the wetlands. The impact of Citrus Park Drive was going to be substantial, so for it to be delayed is definitely good for us."

Without the extension, the county predicts Linebaugh traffic will slow to a snarl by 2015.

Like Fawn Ridge homeowners, Lutz residents aren't thrilled about changes to Lutz-Lake Fern Road. They know that the widening is necessary with the new Steinbrenner High set to debut in August. It is estimated that 1,225 new vehicles will be added to the already-clogged road when the school opens.

"We're all dreading it," Suchocki said. "It's hard enough to get on the road as it is. When they widen it, it's going to be that much more difficult to get out onto traffic that's going 40 to 60 miles an hour."

Hagan, whose district includes Citrus Park and Lutz, said he plans to do all he can to ensure there's as little disruption to the projects as possible.

Design of the Citrus Park Drive extension, for example, is nearly 90 percent complete, said project manager Ben Kniesly.

Hagan said the county could include it and the widening in a transportation referendum commissioners will consider in the fall. The board may ask voters to approve a penny sales tax to boost the stalled projects.

"Lutz-Lake Fern and Citrus Park," Hagan said, "are my top two priorities."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Economy may stall plans for Citrus Park Drive extension, Lutz-Lake Fern Road widening 04/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 4:30am]

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