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Road-widening effort can't wait

Pasco County needs more than $1.5-billion worth of improvements to handle traffic growth over the next two decades. Unfortunately, it will have significantly less to spend.

Costs are escalating, but revenues are not. Right-of-way acquisition now almost doubles the price of building a new road. But, the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization _ the County Commission and elected representatives from the cities of Port Richey, New Port Richey, Zephyrhills and Dade City _ declined to consider a 5-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax hike during previous updates to its long-range highway plan.

So, over the next several months, the county will map out what is known as the "cost affordable" transportation plan through 2025. It means trimming proposed highway projects that cost somewhere between $600-million and $800-millionto meet expected revenues.

"We're going to have quite a challenge going to that cost affordable plan," understated Bob Wallace, the county's transportation consultant.

It could include reducing the level of service called for in the county's comprehensive growth plan. In other words, everyone could be sitting in traffic even longer.

Some cuts are easy. Expunging a proposed east-west highway through northern Pasco is a no-brainer. No Florida Turnpike Authority money is earmarked for the road.

Some are not. One road, labeled as a "critical discussion issue" in an MPO presentation last week, cannot be dismissed. It is imperative that Pasco County reaffirm its commitment to widening County Line Road through Spring Hill from U.S. 19 to East Road.

The $118-million project calls for Hernando County to pick up 60 percent of the cost. Hernando officials recognize the road's importance. Two weeks ago, they declined to support a cheaper alternative. Pasco's road planners should follow their lead.

As noted previously, County Line Road has evolved from a sparsely traveled rural road to a busy east-west artery that has witnessed significant commercial and residential growth. In addition to connecting U.S. 19 and U.S. 41, County Line Road now is absorbing traffic from a third north-south roadway, the Suncoast Parkway.

Pasco needs to avoid any potential temptation to move County Line Road even further down the long-range list.

Pasco County's growth has been along its southern and western borders as residents migrated from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Similarly, the focus has been on those areas.

Last week, for instance, MPO Chairman Steve Simon agreed it was a good idea to reserve corridors for potential connections to commuter rail systems that someday could serve Pinellas and Hillsborough. And, panel member Tom Finn of New Port Richey wondered if Pasco's MPO could set aside landscape funding for Seven Springs Boulevard to mirror the beautification efforts along Pinellas' East Lake Road.

Looking southward is understandable. It is the region's population center. But, Pasco must look elsewhere as well. A wider County Line Road is a key component to the transportation network serving Pasco's northern tier.

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