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DOT does U-turn to halt driver shortcuts

So many drivers cut across N Dale Mabry Highway's new median at Geraci Road that they ground the fresh sod into a forlorn patch of sand.

The Florida Department of Transportation installed posts to stop the shortcuts, but a new crossing quickly formed south of the posts.

Now, the DOT is relenting. The department is adding a pair of U-turn lanes north and south of the intersection.

A DOT open house to explain the changes is planned for Tuesday afternoon at Lutz Elementary School.

Kenneth Hartmann, DOT secretary for the Tampa Bay area, "thinks it was just an oversight," said spokesman Ron Winter. "It just wasn't included in the original project."

Winter said nearby merchants complained about a lack of median cuts two years ago as the four lanes of N Dale Mabry neared completion. Soon the current project was being planned, Winter said.

"People went out and took a look at it and said, "You know, we should have done it,' " Winter said.

As part of the $375,000 contract, N Dale Mabry also will be made more accessible to Northfork Professional Center, a Pasco County office complex where people can arrive from either direction, but can leave only southbound. They can't make a U-turn to head north until they get to County Line Road.

Now, the turn lanes in front of Northfork are being replaced with a full median cut.

But the bigger inconvenience has been at Geraci. There, the new median forced a southbound motorist heading for the Lake Wilson neighborhoods to make a 1.4-mile round trip to the Cheval entrance before getting a U-turn to the north.

A legal one, that is.

One afternoon last week, plumber Tracy Gray escaped the trip to Cheval. He whipped his battered blue pickup truck across the median to use a pay telephone at the Short Stop convenience store on the northeast corner of Geraci and Dale Mabry.

"I've probably done it about 10 times," Gray said. "It's a hassle to drive all the way down the road and have to turn around and come back."

One day, the DOT's own engineers happened by after a delivery truck had bogged down in the median's sand. The driver had tried the shortcut despite carrying a heavy cargo of bottled water.

Al Silence, co-owner of Al's Lawn Care Products next door to the convenience store, said anybody can stand near the intersection and see a shortcut or two taken.

"You won't have to wait for long."

Silence joined with Short Stop owner Jamal Mansour last year to push for a change. Mansour said they paid more than $3,000 to lobbyist Todd Pressman.

Pressman said he called a variety of officials and soon, "I was under the impression that they were already moving toward a decision."

The changes are crucial to Mansour, whose company bought the Short Stop last year after it had been cut off from its southbound customers.

"This store was dead, really, when I took it over," Mansour said.

It perked up after Mansour added gasoline pumps, but he said he expects 30 percent more business with a new U-turn lane.

On the other hand, the DOT is seldom eager to add turns and median cuts to major highways, said Randy W. Sanborn, the DOT's project engineer. Traffic flows more quickly and safely without such interruptions, he said.

"You've got a busy highway, and you've got a lot more people slowing down to make those turns," Sanborn said. "You've got more risk of rear-enders."

In addition, the Geraci/Dale Mabry intersection has traffic converging from six directions:

N Dale Mabry from the northeast and the southwest.

Geraci from the east and the west.

Sunlake Boulevard from the north.

Wilson Circle from the south.

So the U-turns are being spaced about 1,000 feet north and south of the intersection. The work will be finished by early July. Drainage modifications are under way.

"If you add another lane anywhere, Swiftmud's going to make you store that water," Sanborn said.