ZEPHYRHILLS — Longtime Zephyrhills resident Lora Morrison saw the signs as she was driving by First Church of the Nazarene on 12th Street Thursday night and decided to stop. Inside was an open house and public hearing for Florida Department of Transportation's U.S. 301 widening project, and she wanted her voice to be heard.
"I've never done this before," she said standing before the crowd during the public comment portion of the hearing.
"Just looking at this, we have a small town. We're not Wesley Chapel where there's not a focus of being a smaller town. We're not North Tampa. We're not a Dale Mabry," she said, adding that she's not in favor of a proposal that makes U.S. 301, known locally as Gall Boulevard, a one-way, northbound road. "I can't imagine having 301 a one-way where people just whip down and don't stop to smell the roses."
Morrison, 50, captured the essence of city and community leaders' concerns with that very plan, and she drew the loudest applause of the 10 speakers. All, but one speaker who said he had no preference, were against the transportation department's plan to transform that stretch of U.S. 301 through the city's business district into a one-way road. The concern is that motorists will simply pass through rather than stop, shop and eat at local establishments, because turning around to enter businesses could be cumbersome. The area is also is the focus of city redevelopment and development plans to turn it into a thriving business district.
About 76 people turned out for the two-hour open house and hearing, which was the last public opportunity for community members to voice their opinions about the nearly 2½-mile project designed to alleviate traffic congestion. While only a handful spoke publicly, the majority filled out written comment cards that transportation department staff will review before deciding on a plan.
Because of the community's concerns, the project has for years been stalled while city officials came up with an alternative plan that changes the route of U.S. 301, sweeping it onto Seventh Street so it runs up to the current U.S. 301 and Fort King Road intersection. Under the city's preferred plan, Gall Boulevard remains a two-way, two-lane road.
"Both alternatives are good for moving cars," City Manager Jim Drumm said during the hearing, "but Zephyrhills is more than moving cars."
Todd Vande Berg, city planning and development director, echoed that sentiment, saying a one-way road could crush their vision of redevelopment in the business district.
"As a smaller community we feel that it's extremely important to keep the spine of our city completely accessible," he told the crowd.
Ernest Peeples, 74, whose family has had businesses in Zephyrhills for 70 years, said not only is he against the transportation department's original plan, so are his commercial tenants.
"They all feel like if we make 301 one-way it will harm our businesses," he said during public comments. "We would love to see 301 stay two ways."
A decision on which plan will move forward is expected by the end of April, but construction is still several years out. Right-of-way acquisition — which includes 22 commercial and residential properties with the original plan and 27 properties under the city's preferred plan — is set to begin next year and continue until 2015.
Construction likely wouldn't begin until two years after that. If the Department of Transportation plan is chosen, it would cost about $48 million to complete while the city's plan would cost an estimated $54 million.
Drumm told the crowd that the community's return would outweigh the additional costs for the city's preferred plan.