Making U.S. 19 safer between Hernando County and Hudson just became less of a priority. For the third time in 13 months, the Florida Department of Transportation is delaying plans to buy the land needed for a continuous right-hand turn lane on U.S. 19 through northwest Pasco. It is a disappointing decision that likely will add to the project's long-term cost because of higher land-acquisition expenses down the road.
Hernando drivers should pay heed. The DOT's traffic counts show more than 37,000 daily trips on U.S. 19 near County Line Road in Hernando and more than 44,000 in Aripeka in Pasco, meaning Hernando's out-of-county commuters face additional traffic concerns as they head south.
The delays are becoming too familiar. In December 2007, the Florida Department of Transportation postponed buying the right of way for two years. Last month, the $16-million expenditure was pushed back for another two years, and last week, an updated version of the DOT's tentative work list deferred the project completely out of the state's five-year program. The latest decision comes in the midst of a $2-billion shortfall in the transportation trust fund fueled by sales taxes, and a state goal of making construction-ready projects into a more immediate priority.
"Buying right of way doesn't stimulate the economy. Buying right of way doesn't create jobs,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, who chairs the state Senate's transportation appropriations committee.
Logical thinking, but a discouraging delay, nonetheless. Adding the right-hand turn lanes and better channeling traffic flow through the road's median cuts were the two big-ticket items devised to help make U.S. 19 safer. The median improvements are financed by a local sales tax increase in Pasco.
At least Hernando's road plans escaped the DOT's update relatively unscathed, though better-managed traffic on Interstate 75 is also pushed out of the work program. The revised project list excludes more than $300,000 for engineering work on a computerized traffic management program for the interstate highway in southern Hernando.
Regrettably, the DOT's history indicates the delays might not be over. Take U.S. 41, through Land O'Lakes. The DOT initially bumped widening the stretch from Tower Road to Connerton from its five-year work plan in 2001. Last month, the DOT delayed the start of construction yet again until 2013.
The people driving on U.S. 19 deserve a better fate. The road's safety record makes the improvements imperative. A law enforcement presence, more awareness by motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, and increased use of mass transit are all components to a safer U.S. 19.
For drivers leaving Hernando for a southern commute, that will have to suffice until somebody decides their well-being is a higher priority.