The quest for a safer U.S. 19 took a small step forward recently in anticipation of the large-scale improvements that remain a year a way. The efforts, though incremental, are welcome along Pasco County's most deadly highway.
In August, the state Department of Transportation completed installation of its fifth median barrier - a series of low-to-the-ground white poles with yellow reflective striping - to better guide turning vehicles at dangerous locations. The poles channel traffic flow, effectively eliminating the free-for-all, middle turn lanes along small sections of U.S. 19 from Holiday to Port Richey.
One channel is at U.S. 19 and Gulf Trace Boulevard, a mile from where Gulf Trace Elementary School opened in January. Others are just south of Darlington Road, north of State Road 54 and north of Ridge Road. The northernmost median channel is at Sandra Drive, amid a stretch of U.S. 19 north of Ranch Road that had one of the highest accident rates at any mid block location when the community's U.S. 19 safety push began six years ago.
The motive is simple. Channelized medians do not allow cars to make left-hand turns from side streets and driveways across U.S. 19 traffic. Instead, cars seeking to make those left turns must turn right and make a U-turn at the next intersection or median cut. It eliminates the hodgepodge of multiple cars and trucks in the median blocking the view of other motorists attempting to inch forward during a momentary break in the oncoming traffic. The state Department of Transportation has said cars attempting left turns from driveways along highway's edge are the cause of many accidents and traffic congestion.
For now, only five medians are equipped with the traffic channels, but the DOT is scheduled to award a contract next summer for work that calls for closing or channelizing 92 medians from the Pasco-Pinellas line to Marine Parkway. The improvements are financed with more than $9 million in Penny for Pasco sales tax money and are part of the larger effort to build continuous right-hand turn lanes for both the north- and southbound traffic.
The new medians follow new streetlights, better street address signs and so-called smart traffic signals that activate according to traffic flow, all installed since a 2003 task force report highlighted the inadequacies of the major west Pasco highway.
The impetus for better safety came from a staggering increase in traffic fatalities - 38, or more than twice the annual average - at the beginning of the decade. The numbers have declined since. There were 22 deaths in 2007 and 16 of the county's 91 traffic fatalities in 2008 were attributed to U.S. 19 crashes, but it remains the county's most dangerous road.
The nearly 20-mile route from Pinellas to Hernando is the westernmost north-south route through Pasco that is a major commuter route, yet doubles as a local road serving as the only entrance and exit points for many businesses and neighborhoods.
Limiting drivers' access to median turns from those side streets and driveways is a logical safety improvement on a road that averages 110 accidents each month.