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Highway widening to include median

The Department of Transportation once again has affirmed its intent to build a raised median when it widens U.S. 41 S in Inverness.

Many lawmakers, business owners and residents were encouraged this month when the DOT's top officer, Secretary Tom Barry, said the department was not set on building the median when it improves the highway from four to six lanes south of downtown.

That was good news locally, where many people said the median would unduly restrict access to and from businesses and churches and also would pose a safety hazard. Those people have asked the DOT instead to build a middle turn lane, which would allow a more free traffic flow.

After a meeting in Tallahassee on Oct. 9, Barry agreed to form a state and local task force to study the issue. State Sen. Anna Cowin, who represents east Citrus, thought she sensed room for a policy shift. So did Inverness leaders and business owners, who even convened a news conference downtown to tout the task force.

This week, however, county leaders received word that all hope is lost.

"While the department will strive to address as many of the concerns expressed as possible, the option of a seven-lane section is not one that we will be able to accommodate," wrote DOT official William McDaniel in a letter to Cowin that also was copied to several local officials.

"It is our hope that by allowing some flexibility in location of median opening in the raised median section that we will be able to address many of the issues presented to date," McDaniel wrote.

That statement is consistent with the stance DOT engineers had taken all along. Over and over again, the experts have said they had overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the middle turn lanes were much less safer than medians.

The announcement probably won't appease people who dislike the median plan. Many have said that nothing short of a middle turn lane _ not even concessions on where to place median cuts _ would satisfy them.

McDaniel has appointed one person on his staff, Mike Coleman, a project development engineer, to serve on the task force. It was not clear late Tuesday who would represent local concerns.

Once the task force meets and discusses its concerns, McDaniel wrote, the department's staff will review the U.S. 41 corridor again and meet with people who would be directly affected by the road changes.

The department has not yet set aside money to buy land or pay for construction. The project calls for improvement of U.S. 41 between State Road 44 and Orange Avenue in Floral City.

The department has said that, even if everything works smoothly, bulldozers won't run until after 2002. And if local people and the department can't find common ground on the median issue, DOT officials have said in the past, the department will re-allocate money from that project.