LUTZ — An area that evolved in recent years from country to lush suburbia now looks more like a war zone, as road crews tear up traffic lanes and driveways outside a cluster of busy schools on Lutz-Lake Fern Road.
The road widening began in earnest this week, with a sidewalk removed and a ragtag traffic control force directing cars in and out of McKitrick Elementary, Martinez Middle and Steinbrenner High School, the newest of the three.
The timing troubles Dave Crawford, a community leader and father of two in nearby Heritage Harbor. He wonders why the county would undertake such a project just as the school year got under way.
"That's just bizarre. That's just crazy," he said. "For three months we would drive up and down Lutz-Lake Fern, and except for Steinbrenner football practice, it was empty."
Not these days. "It's a little hectic, during the school year especially," said Mike Ellis, who drives his two daughters to McKitrick every morning.
The county public works department and school district officials have known for years that this day would come. Their plan is eventually to widen Lutz-Lake Fern from two lanes to four between the Veterans Expressway and Dale Mabry Highway. The first of the three-phase project, on Lutz-Lake Fern closer to the expressway, rankled parents at the start of school last year.
Now in its second phase, construction stretches from east of the expressway to the entrance of the VillaRosa subdivision and involves closing a lane of traffic and one of two driveways at McKitrick.
"It's just a half to three-quarters of a mile," said county spokesman Steve Valdez, "but it's a difficult half to three-quarters of a mile when you have a piece of land with three schools and two day cares on it."
Not only that: The site is ringed by three large subdivisions and a new interchange that carries traffic on and off the expressway.
Sometimes parents park at the subdivisions and walk their children the rest of the way, darting dangerously across the busy road, and through ditches and barricades.
Despite the chaotic scene, officials say there have been numerous planning meetings to prepare for the yearlong project.
And yes, it is a yearlong project, Valdez said, when asked why it couldn't be accomplished over the summer.
Both the county and the school district have dispatched traffic control officers, some hired off-duty from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, to keep traffic flowing in and out of the three schools.
The manpower costs were built into the $9.9 million road project, Valdez said. A multitude of agencies are involved, including the Florida Highway Patrol and even the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission — "anyone who is certified in traffic control," Valdez said.
At Martinez, parents drop off and pick up their kids during designated times to avoid interfering with the coming and going of school buses, principal Shaylia McRae said.
"The first thing we are trying to do is to get everyone who can to utilize the district transportation," she said.
Stated more simply: "Put your kids on a bus. It will eliminate a lot of the congestion."
She wishes more parents would carpool as well.
McRae, who commutes from Riverview, said she cannot imagine sitting in a gridlocked car line, especially when you consider that afternoon buses leave the school a full 30 minutes ahead of parent cars because of the designated pickup time.
But the bus is not always practical for parents like Crawford. Middle school begins at 9 a.m., well after he and his wife need to leave for work, he said. So they leave as early as 8 to drive their son to Martinez, about 2 miles from home.
McRae has seen some parents drop their teens off at Steinbrenner, then line up outside the Martinez gate to drop off younger children. "I have parents that sit for an hour," she said. "They just won't go home."
It's too soon to measure the traffic snarl's impact on student activities, but McRae said she has seen less attendance in an early morning tutorial for students who want to take their SAT in seventh grade.
McKitrick parents have been cautioned not to visit the school for PTA meetings and other functions until after the dropoff period has ended.
Valdez said the project, funded with community investment tax proceeds, has been more or less on schedule. It took longer than the high school construction, he said, because although the school district already owned the land for Steinbrenner, the county had to purchase right of way to widen the road.
"We knew from the beginning that it would be a challenge to widen the road and maintain traffic to three schools with three start times and three dismissal times," he said.
Reach Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 624-2739.