Making U.S. 19 safer between Hudson and Hernando County just became less of a priority. For the third time in 13 months, the state 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.
It certainly is becoming familiar. In December 2007, the state Department of Transportation postponed for two years buying the right of way. Last month, the $16-million expenditure was pushed back for two more years, and last week, an updated version of the DOT tentative work list deferred the project completely out of the state's five-year program. The latest decision comes amid a $2-billion shortfall in the transportation trust fund fueled by sales taxes and a state goal of making construction-ready projects 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 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. Pasco voters upheld their end, approving a sales tax increase four years ago that included $13-million for the median improvements that are now under way.
DOT even accelerated the work initially, agreeing to build the right-hand turn lanes in both directions — effectively taking the road from six to eight lanes — from Pinellas County to State Road 52 in 2011. But now the northern leg's turn lanes remain on the drawing board for at least the next five years.
Regrettably, DOT's history also indicates the delays might not be over. Take U.S. 41, through Land O'Lakes, for instance. 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.
Twenty-two people died on U.S. 19 crashes in Pasco County in 2007, a 22 percent increase over the previous year, but still a significant drop from the spike of 38 fatalities in 2001. The alarming numbers that year prompted elected officials and local road planners to convene a force to seek out permanent safety solutions. The state added lights, large-numbered street address signs, computerized traffic management devices, and planned new sidewalks in some spots. Volunteers even handed out flashing reflectors to pedestrians to make them more visible to motorists at night.
Still, U.S. 19 is the county's most dangerous road on which more than 1,000 people are injured each year. Speeding is a common denominator among drivers, but the highway also is notorious for its stop-and-go traffic magnified by the highway's dual purpose. It is a local road serving as the only access point for many businesses and neighborhoods, but doubles as a major commuter route for coastal Pasco.
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 traveling north of Hudson, that will have to suffice until somebody decides their well-being is a higher priority.