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After eight deaths, this stretch of U.S. 19 in Hudson to get safety fix

A roundabout, rebuilt street, new driveways and a traffic light are planned for the area around a busy Walmart store.

A deadly stretch of U.S. 19 in Hudson is about to get a $2.7 million makeover to make the roads around a Walmart store safer.

Eight people have died in the vicinity since 2014, and over the past six years, there have been 200 accidents leaving 75 people injured, according to data shared with Pasco County commissioners by County Engineer Margaret Smith.

The improvements are planned for Beacon Woods Drive, U.S. 19 and Dipaola Drive near the Walmart store in Hudson. Pasco County, the state Department of Transportation and Walmart are sharing the costs.

The county will build a roundabout on Beacon Woods Drive and already has started rebuilding Dipaola Drive. Walmart will finance new entrances and exits and road connections to both routes. And the state will install a traffic signal for drivers using Dipaola and Beach Boulevard to enter U.S. 19.

The improvement plan, first previewed for Pasco County commissioners more than two years ago, is advancing under a cost-sharing agreement approved last week by the commission. Work on the roundabout is expected to start in February 2020, and all the fixes are projected to be completed the following year.

The U.S. 19 and Beacon Woods Drive intersection serves as the western access point to the sprawling Beacon Woods community of more than 2,700 homes. It also doubles as a one-way exit from the 35-acre Walmart site at the northeast corner.

Traffic in the area has been problematic since the store opened 11 years ago. Beacon Woods shoppers are forced to drive out to U.S. 19 and make a U-turn to return to their neighborhood from the store.

Meanwhile, just a quarter-mile away, Leisure Beach and Country Club Estates residents confront heavy traffic while trying to enter or exit their own neighborhoods that front U.S. 19, north of Walmart.

Commissioner Jack Mariano has lobbied the state for a traffic light since 2013. Traffic flow remained troublesome, though not as deadly, even after the state channelized the median there and widened U.S. 19 to add a continuous right-hand turn lane.

Last week, Commissioner Kathryn Starkey acknowledged that officials bowed to political pressure at the time the Walmart traffic plan drew public debate last decade.

Initial traffic plans called for allowing motorists to exit the south parking lot and travel in either direction on Beacon Woods Drive. But residents of the adjoining Beacon Woods subdivision complained loudly about potential cut-through traffic in their neighborhood from motorists leaving the store and heading toward State Road 52. The years-long public protests finally subsided after the county approved the one-way entrance and exits at Beacon Woods Drive.

“Because we had people so concerned about traffic in their neighborhoods, we did some things that maybe were dangerous,’’ said Starkey. "...I think there were some mistakes made.''

The early traffic plan for the Walmart store at U.S. 19 and Beacon Woods Drive in Hudson called for motorists to be able to access the Beacon Woods neighborhood after leaving the store. That plan was scrapped amid criticism from neighborhood residents shown here picketing in 2003. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Protests of a different sort peaked in late 2016 when a petition seeking a traffic light at Beach Boulevard/Dipaola Drive and U.S. 19 drew more than 1,000 signatures. That public outcry followed the Nov. 28, 2016, death of musician Robert Leroy Cartright, 33, a member of the Bearded Brothers Band. He died when his motorcycle collided with a vehicle that attempted a left-hand turn toward Beach Boulevard from the northbound lane of U.S. 19.

The state initially resisted Mariano’s request for a traffic light, but acquiesced if the county and Walmart completed the other improvements first.