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Highway projects make the cut

The big news for Hernando County in the state Department of Transportation's new five-year plan is the lack of widely expected bad news.

Because of rising costs for land and road construction in recent years, county planners had been bracing for cuts to crucial highway construction projects, including the widening of stretches of County Line Road and State Road 50.

Instead, the five-year plan, which was released Friday, shows the state is still committed to paying for those improvements, even if it means paying more.

For example, in last year's five-year plan, the state reserved $13.8-million to widen 2.4 miles of County Line between U.S. 19 and Cobblestone Drive.

That cost is now $31.3-million. But the Transportation Department still expects to pay for the project, work on which is expected to begin next year.

"I'm very pleased," said Dennis Dix, the county's transportation planning coordinator, who will present the report to the County Commission today.

Not every county was so lucky, said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the department's District 7 office in Tampa.

Funding for projects in the district - which includes Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus and Hernando counties - did not increase dramatically over last year, she said. That meant the district was forced to repackage contracts with road builders and cut several projects in other counties.

No special effort was made to preserve the projects in Hernando, she said, but the projects were analyzed on their costs and merits.

Dix said it might have helped that Hernando had only two major projects, County Line and SR 50, which is the costliest single project in the county. The new plan calls for spending $53.7-million over the next five years on widening SR 50 from four to six lanes between U.S. 19 and Mariner Boulevard.

Dix had earlier expressed concern that the state would not be able to pay for the widening of SR 50 between Kettering and Lockhart roads near Interstate 75. The county will not receive any firm word on that until the Transportation Department releases its long-rage plan later this year, but the five-year plan calls for spending $1.8-million to design improvements for that stretch of roadway. That's a good sign, Dix said, because the department seldom pays to design jobs it does not plan to work on soon.

The state has also agreed to help pay for the widening of Barclay Avenue, between Elgin Boulevard and SR 50. The total cost of that project is $22.5-million, and it is expected to be finished within the next five years.

In one key project outside Hernando, the state Turnpike Enterprise has earmarked $182-million to design the Suncoast Parkway extension into Citrus County and begin buying rights of way.

Staff writer Jim Ross contributed to this report. Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6116.

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