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Suncoast Parkway transforms commute

Terri Mazurowski takes dollars during rush hour here at the Anderson Road toll plaza on the Veterans Expressway, and these are the things she sees: books open on steering wheels and laptops opened on seats, people eating in their car and reading in their car, coffee cups and yawns.

Stop, pay, go.

Since the Suncoast Parkway opened five years ago, it has opened an easier, more direct commuting corridor between the counties north of Tampa and the major job centers in Tampa and St. Petersburg. The 42-mile parkway starts where the Veterans ends in northern Hillsborough and goes up through Pasco and Hernando counties, ending just south of Citrus County.

No one keeps surefire statistics on how many people from the North Suncoast commute using the parkway. But the toll booths get progressively busier the farther south they are. And roughly 75 percent of the traffic in the morning goes south, according to numbers kept by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, and roughly 75 percent in the evening goes north.

The distance from the counties on the North Suncoast to Tampa and St. Petersburg isn't any less now than it was five years ago. But the time it takes to go that distance is. The parkway did that.

"It was an hour and a half to Tampa," said Gladys Moore, a Hernando Realtor. "It was a pain in the butt."

But the parkway, said Marvin Rose, a Tampa Bay area housing analyst, has made the North Suncoast "accessible and acceptable."

Here in Tampa, too, the metro-area "ring" has gotten bigger. "We used to use the old rule of thumb that 30 minutes was the limit," MetroStudy Tampa division director Tony Polito said. Now it's more like 45 minutes or an hour.

In 2000, of the more than 900,000 people who work in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, just less than 40,000 were coming from the three North Suncoast counties. But the populations of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties have gone up considerably in just the last five years, and more of them are going to Tampa and St. Petersburg for work.

Joseph Narkiewicz sees them. The executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association leaves his northern Hillsborough home early in the morning to drive to work in Tampa - sometimes, he says, as early as 5:30 or 5:45. "If you leave later than that," he said, "you start seeing all those Pasco and Hernando tags sitting in front of you."

The busiest, most harried times, said Terri Mazurowski, the Anderson toll collector, are 6:30 to 9 in the morning and 4:30 to 7 or so in the evening.

The drivers then are mostly single-occupant drivers - almost 80 percent of Florida commuters go solo - and they blow through the prepaid SunPass lanes here at the busiest toll plaza on the Veterans Expressway, 2 miles north of Hillsborough Avenue and 11 or so miles south of the Pasco border.

A man with spiky hair and dressed in a suit in a silver Mitsubishi.

A blond woman with the coat of her suit hanging in the back left window of her silver Altima.

Another guy in a silver Mitsubishi with a buzz cut and one of those cell phone ear pieces with the blinking blue light stuck to the side of his head.

The ones without SunPass . . .

Stop, pay, go.

Quick, quick, quick.

"It's like they're handing you the money faster," Mazurowski said. "Everybody's got to get home, make dinner, pick up the kids."

Back up to SR 54 . . . SR 52 . .. SR 50 . . . through the wet, low-lying land in Pasco and on to the higher, sandier soil of Hernando, where the new homes are big but cost less than they do closer in.

The other night, at the Anderson toll plaza, the sun started to set over the tops of the trees on the west side of the road. The headlights started to flip on. The cars kept coming.

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