No funding for widening of Lithia-Pinecrest Road

BRANDON — Ask people along Lithia-Pinecrest Road how they feel about it being widened and their answers reflect what they have at stake.

Vince Ferraro's business is on the north side in Brandon. He sees the daily congestion of 24,000 cars and wants something done.

Kelly Cornelius is a rural preservationist on the south end in Lithia. She worries about the sprawl that more roadway could bring.

Then there's Bruce Rooney, who lives between Brandon and Lithia. He could lose his house to the road-widening project.

A study's final recommendation to county officials could call for Lithia-Pinecrest Road to grow from two lanes to six lanes for 11 miles between State Road 60 and County Road 39 at a cost of more than $300 million.

As controversy swirls and residents take sides, the reality is this: No county funding is in sight for the project. If the money does become available, officials say it's unlikely that the road would grow to six lanes right away.

The pending $2.3 million study, which considers environmental and engineering issues as well as public input, will enable the county to seek federal money.

A 1-mile stretch from Bloomingdale Avenue to Adelaide Avenue in Valrico is the only widening project on the road with funding, and it's being paid for by a developer.

"At this point, there are no funds available to start anything," County Commissioner Al Higginbotham said. "That's why they're doing the study — to see what has to be done so that we can move forward with any type of project."

Ferraro, an accountant whose office is two blocks south of State Road 60, has worked on Lithia-Pinecrest Road for almost 30 years — plenty of time to see the heavy traffic that came with development.

"This has been a problem for a long time," he said. "You can't constantly be putting people on a two-lane road. The county has always done things backwards. They put the people in, and then put in the infrastructure. It shouldn't work that way."

While the study's preliminary findings showed a need for six lanes on the entire road, county officials say enlarging the road south of FishHawk Ranch to County Road 39 is unlikely. The area was included in the study because it's a requirement to get consideration for federal aid.

While traffic projections show the road being overburdened by 2038, the rural segment won't be widened if the majority of residents are against it, said Steve Gordillo of HDR Engineering, the company conducting the study.

It's likely that Lithia-Pinecrest Road will eventually be widened to four lanes between State Road 60 and FishHawk Boulevard with the capacity to add two more lanes in the future, county spokesman Steve Valdez said.

The road's southernmost part will probably stay at two lanes, he added.

Still, Cornelius and others in the Rural Lithia Area Neighborhood Defense group are concerned about sprawl if the study's final recommendation is six lanes.

"Once anything gets on a map or approved by a study, if you're a developer you're going to have that map in your hands and say 'Commissioners, this is crazy. It says right here we have a need for six lanes,' " Cornelius said.

Rooney, who lives on Lithia-Pinecrest Road near Lumsden Road in Valrico, bought his home 30 years ago with the intention of never moving again.

While there is rush-hour traffic, he doesn't think it's enough for him and others to lose their homes if the road is widened.

"It isn't worth it," said Rooney, an 88-year-old disabled veteran. "We love this house. When you get to be our age, you like to just keep what you have."

HDR and the county will hold a public hearing before a final recommendation is made. But no matter what the study says, construction seems to be at least several years away.

"We don't even have a roadway designed," Valdez said. "You can't even put a time frame to it because there's no money."

Kevin Smetana can be reached at ksmetana@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

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For information on the Lithia-Pinecrest Road widening project or to submit input to the county, go to www.lpcstudy.com.

No funding for widening of Lithia-Pinecrest Road 02/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 3:31am]

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