LUTZ — Timing can be everything for Brian Nelson and Deb Boyd when they leave their Carson Drive home in Land O’ Lakes.
She does her Walmart shopping at 6 a.m. to avoid a traffic backup at the nearby intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54. And, they both route their drives through the rear access of a shopping center parking lot in a circuitous journey to reach SR 54 where they said they still sit through three traffic light cycles to turn left onto U.S. 41.
The state says 124,000 vehicles pass through the SR54/U.S. 41 intersection each day. That’s a 25 percent increase from six years ago and projections call for 50,000 additional vehicles to use the intersection over the next two decades.
“I think we need something. It’s going to get so much more congested,” said Nelson, a retiree from California.
“Hopefully, this will mean it will become uncongested,” said Boyd.
The “something” is one of three proposals the Florida Department of Transportation is considering for SR 54/ U.S. 41. Thursday night, Nelson, Boyd and four dozen other residents gathered for a workshop at a community church to get their first public viewing of the alternatives. The eventual work could mean an intersection rebuild costing more than $240 million, a flyover taking east-west traffic above U.S. 41 and force as many as 34 businesses to move.
A flyover at the intersection is controversial. It’s been discussed for nearly three decades after community uproar killed a planned east-west highway through Lutz to connect the Veterans Expressway and Interstate 75. Later, the state built an interchange at I-75 and SR 56 and widened both SR 54 and SR 56 to six lanes, effectively turning that stretch of highway into the de facto east-west route ending at U.S. 41.
The state began a new study of long-term improvements to the intersection nine years ago and unveiled a flyover plan in 2015 that again brought community pushback.
Some residents and business owners complained an elevated highway would be too disruptive to both local commerce in an aging retail district and to the sense of community in the area where U.S. 41 had doubled as Main Street and the intersection served as a gateway from Hillsborough to central Pasco.
So, the state hit the brakes in early 2016 and allowed a citizens group to make its own recommendations. Even then the discord continued with Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano once suggesting tunneling under the intersection instead of putting a bridge over it. An estimated $550 million initial price tag quickly buried that idea.
The citizens task force eventually offered three alternatives now being considered:
- A $224 million plan to build elevated east-west lanes to carry SR 54 traffic nonstop over U.S. 41. It would mean displacing 28 businesses.
- A $109 million proposal, submitted by a private party, for a patented design known as a parallel flow intersection. It is the only plan that does not call for bridging U.S. 41. Instead, it provides a series of frontage roads for left-hand turns. Three-quarters of the estimated cost is for right of way and it would displace 17 businesses.
- A $241 million plan that includes both the flyover, other bridges and frontage roads for left-hand turns. It’s known as a continuous flow intersection and would force 34 businesses to move.
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The state expects to announce its preferred alternative by the end of the year and to schedule a public hearing and proceed to the design phase in 2022. Buying right of way could start in 2024. Construction dollars are not yet budgeted.
The number of advocates for a no-build alternative might be lessening. The former Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce was one of the leading objectors to the flyover plan in 2015. The chamber, however, has since merged with its counterpart in West Pasco and the directors of the combined group voted this week to support an elevated overpass.
“It’s inevitable,” said Greg Armstrong, a director of the Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce. “The feeling is it’s only going to get more painful if we don’t do it right away,”