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 Hernando County and Hudson 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.
Hernando's motorists will benefit. DOT traffic counts show more than 37,000 daily trips on U.S. 19 near County Line Road in Hernando and more than 44,000 motorists just a little farther south in Aripeka. That translates to Hernando's out-of-county commuters facing additional traffic concerns as they head south.
Those concerns seemed to be less important just a month ago when DOT delayed this project, pushing it completely out of the five-year work program. It meant 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 counterproductive 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 immediate 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, state Sen. Mike Fasano announced 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 this week, 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: Despite short- and long-term efforts to bolster safety, it remains a deadly highway. So far, the state has added more lights, better street signs, computerized traffic management and plans sidewalks for some portions of the road. Still, deaths on the road through Pasco were up 22 percent in 2007 over the prior year.
The big-ticket improvements are the addition of right-hand turn lanes for the stretch of the road, effectively taking the road to eight lanes from six. 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 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.