The maddening traffic through Wesley Chapel is about to get much-needed relief. Tuesday, Pasco commissioners approved the construction contract for what is the most expensive local road project in the county's history.
At a price tag of approximately $100 million, the county is about to widen State Road 54 from Interstate 75 east to Curley Road. County Administrator John Gallagher called it monumental. County engineer James Widman labeled it the worst traffic problem in the county.
Here's the reasoning for the superlatives: The mostly two-lane stretch of highway is the main east-west route through heavily populated Wesley Chapel. It is clogged daily with commuters to Tampa; cars and school buses traveling to more than a half-dozen public schools in the vicinity; seasonal residents making their way to their retirement homes in Zephyrhills and tourists escaping to Saddlebrook Resort. The bumper-to-bumper traffic, in turn, slows northbound motorists. During busy times of the day, vehicles back up on I-75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard as drivers wait to access SR 54.
State statistics show the road is overloaded with 38,000 cars each day, and the county reported 117 traffic crashes with 29 injuries along the road in 2008.
Work is expected to begin March 29. The first six months will be dedicated mostly to utility work and 21 months set aside for actual road building. The construction cost is listed at $28.1 million. The county spent roughly $70 million to obtain right of way in the heavily developed area.
It is a pricey investment, but the key part of a plan to ease traffic flow through an area that boomed in population beginning in the mid 1990s. The ongoing lengthening of the I-75 bridge over SR 54, extending SR 56 to the east, improving Meadow Pointe Boulevard to withstand additional traffic, and the current widening of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard all will provide multiple routes for this sprawling suburban enclave.
The task ahead for state road planners and legislators is to ensure widening of SR 54 east of Curlew Road does not remain on some long-range wish list. Without a reasonable time frame to better move traffic east toward Zephyrhills, the improvements simply push the daily bottleneck further from the interstate.
The county also has learned from the information gap that surrounded the widening of County Road 54 west of the interstate, a project completed in spring 2008, but several months after its original deadline. It left nearby residents frustrated and angry. This time, the county plans public meetings, a public ground-breaking ceremony and periodic e-mail updates to interested parties on the construction progress.
It's smart thinking. Motorists stuck in daily traffic deserve more precise information beyond a flag man holding a sign that states the obvious: Slow.