Monday, July 23, 2018
Transportation

Pasco panel resumes job of tackling SR 54 traffic congestion

LAND O'LAKES — A group talked transportation in a college classroom (study) amid a crowd of onlookers who filled every seat (capacity) and looked for additional space (congestion).

But, not all of the messages were that subliminal.

The group, a reconvened citizens task force trying to figure out how to best move vehicles along the State Road 54/56 corridor, also heard a blunt assessment or two during its meeting last week at Rasmussen College.

"I can almost guarantee some of you won't like the recommendation,'' said Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein.

"You've got to be able to think past your own property,'' said Kris Hughes, Pasco County's director of planning and development.

Their wisdom came as the newly combined Vision 54/56 task force, which merged two separate panels, met for the first time in nearly a year to begin winnowing the possible solutions to improve traffic flow between Trinity and Wesley Chapel.

The group gave the go-ahead to authorize further assessment of 12 alternatives, including a no-build option. The plans include a mix of elevated roads, separate lanes for mass transit, so-called alternative intersection designs akin to the divergent diamond intersection planned for Interstate 75 and SR 56, and a network of frontage and bypass roads.

The assessments — including traffic projections, levels of service, the number of affected businesses and estimated construction and right of way costs — aren't expected to be completed until August, when the task force will meet again. Rather than studying the entire corridor, the analysis will focus on two heavily traveled SR 54 intersections, at Little Road and at U.S. 41.

The goal is to build community support for the final recommendation to the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization and state Department of Transportation. That chore comes in light of the public push-back three years ago against a private company's pitch to the DOT to build an elevated highway stretching 30 miles from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301. That $2 billion project died after the company acknowledged it needed public subsidies to make the financing work.

The route remains problematic. Nearly 100,000 vehicles move through the SR 54/U.S. 41 intersection daily, and the county projects 135,000 people will move to the vicinity of the corridor by 2040.

Last week, more than 30 onlookers watched the task force meeting. Some offered written comments, and a couple spoke to the panel directly.

"I'm very concerned we don't repeat the mistakes on U.S. 19,'' said Kim Binkley-Seyer of Sarasota, who said the elevated intersections on U.S. 19 through Pinellas County damaged businesses.

But restaurateur Ben Puma, whose Benedetto's Ristorante Italiano has been a SR 54 staple in Land O'Lakes for 17 years, offered a contrary view. An improved road network is "an opportunity to either grow our business or move our business,'' he said. "I'm sure people will follow us wherever we go.''

The task force is expected to make its recommendation in October.

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