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Residents question road plan

Although the county plans to widen County Road 486 to four lanes beginning in 2000, some businesses and residents in the Citrus Hills area want those plans put into the fast lane.

Traffic on the road is heavy and some intersections are dangerous, according to letters sent this month from three business people, two civic group leaders and one church pastor, all of whom regularly travel CR 486.

The six letters came in response to commissioners' approval last month of the county's five-year capital improvement plan, which lays out road-improvement projects as well as dozens of other plans slated to begin between this year and 2001.

The letter writers were particularly annoyed that County Road 491 took precedence over CR 486 in the county's plans.

"CR 486 has the highest traffic counts!" said a letter signed by Steven Southard, the president of Ted Williams Family Enterprises.

The letter said the latest available traffic figures show the section of CR 486 west of Forest Ridge Boulevard, which runs past the museum honoring baseball great Ted Williams, is more highly traveled than any other section of CR 486 or CR 491.

The county says the most recent traffic counts on CR 486 probably have been boosted by drivers trying to avoid construction on State Road 44. The four-lane widening on SR 44 is scheduled to be complete in January.

"We're waiting to get 44 done to see what the real level of traffic is along 486," said Barbara Zimmerman, the county's development services director.

In the meantime, work crews are scheduled to begin widening CR 491 next year, beginning with the section between SR 44 and W Educational Path. Widening projects along other heavily traveled portions of CR 491 are scheduled in 1998 and 2000. (See map.)

Zimmerman said all of the design work is complete on the CR 491 projects, and the county has also bought some of the land needed for a wider four-lane right of way.

Building roads takes years of planning, Zimmerman said, and the county is already proceeding on CR 491's widening plans.

"Generally, it takes you three years to get a road from when you're designing it until you're actually constructing it," Zimmerman said.

Widening projects for CR 486 are included in the county's capital improvement plan, but construction isn't set to begin until 2000. The county has not begun drawing designs for the CR 486 widening, and a funding source remains to be found.

"It's going to require a gas tax increase," said Brad Thorpe, chairman of the Citrus County Commission. Thorpe called the proposed tax increase a "political decision" that would need to be made "by a board in the future."

In a written response to the letter writers, Thorpe said the CR 491 project is needed because of the development along the highway north and south of SR 44.

The development includes the county jail, the new county office building, the public works compound, the new Central Florida Community College campus, a new regional post office, medical offices and elder-care facilities.

"The construction of these developments (north of SR 44) was predicated on the completion of the CR 491 road improvements. If these improvements are not completed as planned, a building moratorium will occur along that portion of CR 491," Thorpe wrote.

Still, Thorpe said he has asked for a county report on the priority assigned to the three sections of CR 486. As the priorities stand, the portion of CR 486 between SR 44 and CR 491 is to be done first, in 2000. Construction dates for the other two sections _ from CR 491 to Citrus Hills Boulevard and from Citrus Hills Boulevard to U.S. 41 N _ are unspecified in the county's five-year plan.

For now, the portion from CR 491 to Citrus Hills Boulevard is to be widened second, with the project at a right-of-way acquisition phase in 2001. In the same year, the county plans to draw designs for the widening from Citrus Hills Boulevard to U.S. 41.

"If things have changed since that was originally developed, then we need to change the priorities," Thorpe said.

Though the letters to commissioners identified reportedly dangerous road conditions along 486, Thorpe said he is unsure whether all the problems raised in the letters would be solved by a four-lane road. Some problems, he said, might have more to do with the placement of traffic signals.

A county project to reconstruct the intersection of CR 486 and CR 491, adding turn lanes, is set to begin this year. The county is also designing a traffic signal to be installed at the intersection of Croft Avenue and CR 486.

Another intersection widely criticized is the one at CR 486 and Forest Ridge Boulevard, at the Publix shopping center.

In a January letter to the county, Southard, of Ted Williams Family Enterprises, wrote: "I have personally experienced and witnessed numerous near misses on exiting the shopping center onto 486, turning east. The most recent incident was yesterday when the car following behind me was nearly broadsided by a truck traveling west on 486. I saw it in my rear-view mirror and commented to my wife that the young woman driving was lucky to be alive.

"I comment on this hazard every time I enter or exit the shopping center. . . . Something must be done in advance of the certain tragedy which, when it occurs, will force some reaction _ already too late.

"I guess I just don't want to feel as if I should have said something, after the fact."

Those who wish to comment on the issue will have a chance during a budget workshop scheduled for Thursday morning in the County Commission chambers.

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