Amid the bleak economic picture of local government budgets, disappointment with the federal stimulus package spending on state highways and legislative worries that the governor's proposed spending for the coming year is built upon unrealistic revenue figures, comes this bit of welcome news about transportation financing. The on-again, off-again plan to widen U.S. 19 between Hudson and Hernando County is back on again.
The state Department of Transportation wisely tweaked its proposed five-year work plan to include $16 million to buy land needed for a continuous right-hand turn lane through northwest Pasco.
Just a month ago, DOT delayed the project, pushing it completely out of the five-year work program, meaning no dollars would be available until 2015 at the earliest. It was a discouraging development given the DOT deferments in previous budget years and it ran counter-productive to the earlier efforts to improve safety along U.S. 19.
DOT justified the delay, noting it must confront a $2 billion shortfall in the transportation trust fund fueled by sales taxes and follow a stated goal of making construction-ready projects a more immediately priority in an effort to stimulate the economy. Still, it also meant a greater likelihood of additional costs in the future because of fluctuating land prices that were expected to rebound by the time DOT was ready to begin acquiring the right of way.
After public criticism of the delay in mid-January, Sen. Mike Fasano announced at Pasco's legislative delegation meeting that DOT was trying to restore the funding. Last week, Fasano, chairman of the Senate appropriation committee overseeing transportation spending, confirmed DOT has resurrected the project.
As of Monday, the DOT plan is to fund the right of way acquisition over two years, beginning in 2012. The change is commendable because the road's safety record makes improvements imperative.
Here's why: Twenty-two people died on U.S. 19 crashes in Pasco in 2007, a 22 percent increase over the previous year. Despite short- and long-term efforts to bolster safety, it remains the county's most deadly highway.
Making U.S. 19 less dangerous became the focus of a local task force earlier this decade after 38 people were killed on the highway in 2001. So far, the state has added more lights, better street signs, computerized traffic management and plans sidewalks for some portions of the road.
The big-ticket improvement, however, is the addition of right-hand turn lanes for the entire stretch of the road, effectively taking the road from six lanes to eight.
Construction of those lanes between the Pinellas County line and State Road 52 is scheduled to begin next year. Now, buying the land for the rest of the road north to Hernando County is no longer in limbo.
Adding the additional lanes on the road's northernmost stretch in Pasco must remain on schedule in light of the heavy volume of traffic that travels daily between SR 52 and Hudson Avenue and the number of commuters from Hernando County who rely on U.S. 19 as a through route to points south. Keeping those motorists' safety a priority is essential.