DADE CITY — Relief for the traffic-choked Interstate 75 interchange at State Road 56 in central Pasco keeps creeping closer.
More than a year ago, the state Department of Transportation said construction of a so-called divergent diamond interchange would begin in 2024. Later, the DOT moved up the work date to 2020. The state's new tentative five-year work plan lists construction in 2018.
"Everybody's efforts are working out. That's exciting,'' said Pasco Commissioner Mike Moore, who lobbied for a faster construction schedule.
The divergent diamond interchange eliminates waits for left-hand turns for motorists entering I-75. The east-west traffic pattern on SR 56 diverts vehicles to left lanes for a short distance where they either enter the interstate or continue as through traffic by returning to lanes on the right-hand side of the road.
The state budgeted $2.1 million for the design and engineering work, which already is under way. The construction cost is listed at $19.4 million in the current work program. DOT officials briefed Pasco's Metropolitan Planning Organization on the tentative five-year plan last week in Dade City.
Local residents embraced the accelerated work schedule.
"Particularly during rush-hour traffic, it takes forever to get through that intersection,'' said Steve Domonkos, who sits on the transportation task force for the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce. "The sooner they can do something, the better. I wish it had been done before the (Tampa Premiums Outlets mall) opened, but to hear it's opening before they originally projected is the best news I've gotten in a long time.''
The interchange at SR 56 and I-75 opened in 2002, and the state later modified the ramps to make travel safer at the I-75 apex with I-275. But rapid development along State Roads 54 and 56, and the lack of an east-west route through northern Hillsborough County, has triggered heavy traffic.
The eastbound stretch of SR 54, approaching the interstate, is the busiest road in the county east of U.S. 19, resulting in backups for morning commuters. Meanwhile, northbound motorists trying to leave the interstate during the afternoon rush hour find themselves in an exit-ramp bottleneck.
Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the DOT's Tampa district, told the Tampa Bay Times the start date advanced because the DOT received extra money for so-called strategic intermodal system projects. The Legislature created that designation in 2003 for transportation projects of statewide or inter-regional significance that enhance Florida's economic competitiveness by making it easier to move people or freight.
The diverging diamond interchange, she said, "will help improve safety and reduce congestion with all the recent development in Pasco County."
State lawmakers also lauded the advanced schedule for the interchange improvement.
"Pasco County is home to many hard-working taxpayers. It's great to see that FDOT is prioritizing our projects and investing our tax dollars in the local infrastructure," said state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, whose district formerly included the interchange.
"It's always a priority of ours because there's such a need right now,'' said state Rep. Danny Burgess, R-San Antonio. "It's a great step in the right direction and coincides very well with what we're trying to do to expand SR 56 all the way to (U.S.) 301. So, it just makes sense.''
Domonkos, who commutes from his home in Land O'Lakes to his job at the Shops at Wiregrass mall in Wesley Chapel, said he frequently uses County Line Road to avoid the SR 56 traffic at the interchange.
"It's still horrible, and traffic is maxed out with the current design,'' he said. "Anything is an improvement.''