ZEPHYRHILLS — Business owners and residents who have an opinion about the long-awaited U.S. 301 widening project have one final shot to be heard in person, and tonight is it.
The Florida Department of Transportation is hosting an open house and public hearing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at First Church of the Nazarene, 6151 12th Ave. The formal presentation and public comments portion begins at 6 p.m.
The nearly 2½ mile project was proposed years ago to relieve area traffic congestion and prepare for future use, but city officials have been fighting the project for years, saying the transportation department's original plan would be a detriment to area businesses and impede the city's redevelopment plans. The original plan transforms a stretch of U.S. 301, known locally as Gall Boulevard, through the heart of the city's business district and makes it one-way to northbound traffic. City and community leaders say the one-way traffic on the main thoroughfare would force motorists to bypass many businesses and makes it a burden for them to enter them after doubling back.
Because of heavy opposition to that plan, in recent years the city proposed an alternative, changing the route of U.S. 301 and sweeping it onto Seventh Street so it wraps up to the current U.S. 301 and Fort King Road intersection. Under this plan, two-way, two-lane traffic remains through the business district. Both plans bring the widened road past the historic Clyde's Cottages on Old Crystal Springs Road, which runs parallel to the route.
The task at hand now is for transportation officials to decide which alternative route is best for the community. A decision is expected by the end of April. That's why transportation and city leaders say now is the time to be heard.
"The purpose and the intent (of the public hearing) is to gather and garner the public's support on the plan," said Todd Vande Berg, the city's director of planning and development.
Gordana Jovanovic, transportation department design project manager, said Wednesday that public opinion will hold great weight.
"It has a major impact, as you can see," she said, referring to the fact that if transportation officials had not listened to city leaders' opinions on the original design, it would probably already be under construction. "We went back to the drawing board to add this alternative with the city."
Last week, Zephyrhills City Council unanimously reaffirmed its support of the city's proposed alternative plan. Earlier this week, Vonnie Mikkelsen, executive director of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce sent out emails to those who have a stake in the business district, reminding them of the public hearing, the city's preferred plan, and the chamber's support of it.
During the first part of tonight's hearing, attendees can view plans, area photographs and informally ask transportation officials questions.
Those who can't attend tonight's public hearing have a little time to mail in comments. Anyone interested can submit written comments to: Ming Gao, P.E., Intermodal Systems Development Manager, FDOT District Seven, 11201 N McKinley Drive MS 7-500, Tampa, FL 33612-6456. To be included in the public hearing record, they must be postmarked by March 5.