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U.S. 19 fix needs more than just bystanders

Sarah Ward, a planning administrator in Pinellas County, knew the route to the West Pasco Government Center. Though she came to tout the benefits of a U.S. 19 task force, Ward also avoided the highway headache, preferring to travel McMullen-Booth, East Lake and Little roads.

If only more motorists could exercise that option.

But long-term improvements to Little and Rowan roads, running parallel to U.S. 19, haven't eased congestion, and the county is now investigating ways to make the major west side highway safer.

The first step came Thursday when the Metropolitan Planning Organization _ county commissioners and elected officials from Pasco's four largest cities _ authorized a task force to study the highway.

Skepticism is understandable. Task force study usually translates to "writing a report nobody will ever read." But Pasco has a successful model to follow in Pinellas County and is smart to try to repeat it.

There, strong elected leadership pulled together 24 people including police, technical experts, and private citizens for a six-month effort that began and concluded with public hearings on how to improve U.S. 19. They looked at traffic counts and crash statistics, curb cuts, median openings, mass transit, school bus routes, road rage and other variables and ended with 60 recommendations.

The ideas include lighted street signs at intersections, better enforcement of traffic laws by local police agencies, channelizing median openings to prevent cut-through traffic and adding sidewalks. The task force priorities allowed the locals to parlay the work into $50-million in federal aid, while long-term solutions _ hugely expensive overpasses _ remain the ultimate goal.

Pasco County faces many of the same problems. Thirty-two of the county's 105 traffic fatalities in 2001 occurred on U.S. 19, making it the county's most dangerous road. The fatalities included 11 pedestrians, a single year record, killed walking on or near U.S. 19. Seven of them were struck as they attempted to cross the highway at an improper location.

Authorities already have tried a safety crackdown. Police arrested more than a dozen people and issued 113 citations while volunteers handed out flashing lights to pedestrians during a blitz 11 months ago.

More permanent fixes are needed and some already are planned. Additional lighting for dark stretches of the highway is coming. An intelligent traffic system _ a network of computer programs and video monitors controlling traffic signals to better manage flow on U.S. 19 _ is being installed from the Pinellas line to Main Street in New Port Richey. Additional systems covering Grand Boulevard to Beacon Woods Drive and then north to County Line Road are about five years away.

There is no lack of complaining about conditions on U.S. 19. It is a frequent topic for letters to this newspaper. Many local residents remember the bumper sticker that adorned cars of U.S. 19 commuters during the 1980s: "Pray for me. I drive U.S. 19."

The task force will be successful if it can capitalize on that overwhelming public sentiment for an improved highway.

The request to create the task force came from another _ the Pasco Community Safety and Traffic Team. Committees are fine, but the success of the Pinellas effort can be attributed to Pinellas Commissioner Karen Seel, who volunteered to begin the work there in 2000 after a string of horrific fatal accidents.

Her strong leadership will need to be duplicated in Pasco County. We trust one of the three west Pasco commissioners, Ann Hildebrand, Steve Simon and Peter Altman, is up to the task.