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Road boosters fight lights

Commissioner John Chesnut Jr. has declared war on stoplights. He says drivers are fed up with stop-and-go traffic that creeps from one red light to the next. He wants Pinellas County to build a new east-west freeway without the three-eyed monsters.

That highway, County Road 296, would be Pinellas County's first east-west expressway, linking the Lake Seminole area with Interstate 275 and the Howard Frankland Bridge. It would allow drivers to zip across the county without seeing red at every intersection.

"It's a very commuter-oriented roadway," said Hugh Pascoe, a county transportation planner. "It's going to give you that mobility from one side of the county to the other that you don't have now."

That mobility is important because the existing highways have so many stoplights. CR 296 would be a relief valve for two of those roads: Ulmerton Road and Park Boulevard.

"Ulmerton is a disaster area," said Largo resident Wally Forstell, who finds his trips to Tampa take twice as long as they did a few years ago. He calls Ulmerton "the second-longest parking lot in the world." (He said the Long Island Expressway in New York is No. 1.)

CR 296 eventually will include a new bridge across Lake Seminole and will run along Bryan Dairy Road and 118th Avenue to link with I-275. The road will run through an area largely composed of industrial parks and vacant lots with "Build to Suit" signs on them.

There hasn't been much "not-in-my-backyard" opposition because there aren't many back yards.

The county's transportation planning board tentatively has said the road should be an "enhanced arterial" road, which means it would have overpasses at major intersections.

It also could have stoplights.

The board has yet to change its long-range road plan, which says 296 could have as many as six stoplights between Lake Seminole and U.S. 19. Meanwhile, developers along the road already are asking for more stoplights to help cars get in and out of their businesses.

Somewhere, stoplight company sales agents probably are licking their chops at the prospect.

So Chesnut is getting worried. He and other stoplight foes say 296 could be the county's last hope for an east-west freeway.

Learning lessons from

trouble with Ulmerton

The Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) has some ambitious plans to widen Ulmerton and build some overpasses, but it doesn't have enough money.

The project is expected to cost $310-million to $350-million, but the state tentatively has committed only $11-million. Largo Commissioner Jim Miles said in January, "I don't think in our lifetime _ even in the lifetimes of unborn children _ we'll see Ulmerton Road as an expressway. The state can't even find the money to buy enough land for a fruit stand."

But CR 296 should be much cheaper. Although county officials have yet to come up with a precise price, it's expected to cost less than $300-million. State officials are studying both roads to see if CR 296 should be improved before Ulmerton and whether the state should pitch in some money for the county project.

Planners also say they have learned some lessons from Ulmerton.

The DOT doesn't own much land along the road, so the agency will have to buy some expensive real estate from the owners of industrial parks and strip shopping centers. Buying the front half of a Pick Kwik's parking lot can be costly.

The other lesson is about controlling growth. Buildings were allowed to sprout like weeds along Ulmerton, without much planning for the extra cars that would clog the road.

"It's a big lesson that (we have) learned over many years," Pascoe said. "Land-use and transportation planning have to work together."

CR 296 should be easier to build because of both lessons. The county already owns much of the land needed for the road. And the zoning along the road is mostly industrial, which doesn't generate as much traffic as strip shopping centers.

"It's a corridor that has had more planning," Pascoe said. "You are able to go in and plan it from the ground up."

"Nobody wants to let

the state off the hook'

There are still some roadblocks ahead for Chesnut's plan.

Only two segments are financed: the Lake Seminole Bridge and the stretch from 66th Street to I-275. The other segment won't be financed until county officials decide whether to make it a freeway.

Chesnut also wants to eliminate all stoplights between Lake Seminole and I-275. "You've got to get rid of all of them," he said. "Once you put them in, you'll never get rid of them."

But some officials are skeptical. They say it could cost nearly as much as Ulmerton. Overpasses often cost $15-million each, and access roads would be required to serve businesses in the area.

There also might not be enough traffic on CR 296 to justify getting rid of the stoplights.

"I don't think it needs to be a freeway," Largo Commissioner Miles said. "The costs will be rather staggering."

And there is potential for a turf problem.

Because Ulmerton is a state road, the DOT has the responsibility of widening it. Some county officials are worried that if they spend county money to build 296 as a freeway, it will allow the state to shirk its responsibility for Ulmerton.

"Nobody wants to let the state get off the hook too easily," Pascoe said.