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U.S. 301 widening sparks north of Tampa provincial debate

The state plans to expand a 13-mile stretch of the highway to four lanes north of Fowler Avenue.
Aerial view of U.S. 301, which the state Department of Transportation plans to widen to four lanes from State Road 56 in Pasco south to Fowler Avenue. Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith raised objections over the potential harm to a wildlife corridor serving the preserved land shown here in June 2021.
Aerial view of U.S. 301, which the state Department of Transportation plans to widen to four lanes from State Road 56 in Pasco south to Fowler Avenue. Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith raised objections over the potential harm to a wildlife corridor serving the preserved land shown here in June 2021. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Mar. 23

State transportation planners envision two-lane U.S. 301 from Fowler Avenue north into Pasco County as a divided highway.

It already is.

But for now, the division falls along county lines.

In Hillsborough, U.S. 301 north of Temple Terrace is a rural, two-lane path abutting thousands of preserved acres, parks, occasional single-family homes, RV resorts and some industrial property.

In Pasco County, however, U.S. 301 is viewed as a dangerous, traffic-choked north-south commuter and truck route subject to twice-a-day, rush-hour backups.

At midmorning Tuesday, 91 southbound vehicles waited in a 1.4-mile line to get through the red light at the road’s intersection with State Road 56. In the late afternoons, northbound traffic can back up 3 miles from SR 56 to the bridge across the Hillsborough River, said one Pasco official.

The state Department of Transportation is poised to receive both views Thursday as it accepts public comment on expanding the road to four lanes between Fowler Avenue and State Road 56, a distance of 13 miles.

The highway project carries an estimated cost of $199.5 million, not counting the expense of offsetting expected damage to 31 acres of wetlands. It will affect the owners of 16 homes and 11 businesses.

The state Department of Transportation has plans to widen U.S. 301 to four lanes from Fowler Avenue to State Road 56, a distance of 13 miles.
The state Department of Transportation has plans to widen U.S. 301 to four lanes from Fowler Avenue to State Road 56, a distance of 13 miles. [ Florida Department of Transportation ]

In Pasco, the attitude is: When can you start? Commissioner Ron Oakley, who represents eastern Pasco, routinely bemoans the daily bottlenecks. They drew more attention in 2019 after the state extended State Road 56 east 6 miles to connect to U.S. 301 south of Zephyrhills. It effectively gave Wesley Chapel motorists another alternative to driving Interstate 75 or Morris Bridge Road into Tampa.

“For Pasco, it’s needed,” said Lance Smith, a Zephyrhills City Council member and chairman of the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization. “As more and more people come, I think we’re going to have to have it as another four-lane road to get down to Hillsborough County.”

And those people will be coming. Just west of the SR 56 and U.S. 301 intersection sits the planned Two Rivers development of up to 6,400 homes and 2.6 million square feet of retail, office and industrial space.

The attitude among Hillsborough officials might be best described as: Why now?

The proposed four-lane route is not a part of either county’s long-range transportation plan through 2045.

“I do not see any reason why this road needs to be widened at this time. It is outside our urban service area, through a very rural area, where the county has no plans to increase development within the next few decades,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith.

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She said she worries about the planned route slicing the edge of Hillsborough River State Park and interrupting a wildlife corridor connecting other preserves nearby.

Related: Highway route through wilderness area sparks Hillsborough environmental concerns

This isn’t the first time the neighboring governments disagreed over their connecting roadways. A long-discussed link between Mansfield Boulevard in Wesley Chapel and Kinnan Street in New Tampa is open to emergency vehicles only after Pasco residents objected to through traffic. Meanwhile, Gunn Highway in Odessa is designated as a scenic corridor in Hillsborough County, but is home to heavy industry on the Pasco side of the county line. Most recently, Hillsborough officials objected to a planned 15-mile extension of SR 56 into nearly 23,000 acres of preserved land.

The intersection where State Road 56 ends at U.S. 301, seen in June 2021 in Zephyrhills. The state Department of Transportation has plans to widen U.S. 301 from this point southward to Fowler Avenue, a distance of 13 miles.
The intersection where State Road 56 ends at U.S. 301, seen in June 2021 in Zephyrhills. The state Department of Transportation has plans to widen U.S. 301 from this point southward to Fowler Avenue, a distance of 13 miles. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The state points to the need for better safety and projected population increases — with Hillsborough topping 2 million people and Pasco reaching nearly 800,000 residents by 2045 — and corresponding employment growth as reasons for the expansion. Two lanes will be insufficient to handle future traffic, the state said.

Traffic counts from 2015 showed the number of daily vehicles on U.S. 301 ranged from 11,600 up to 18,400, with trucks comprising 11 percent of the traffic. Sixteen people died and 338 were injured in 464 crashes in a five-year period ending in 2019, according to the state’s ongoing study.

The state Department of Transportation is holding an in-person public hearing on its plan from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the department’s district headquarters at 11201 N McKinley Drive in Tampa. A virtual session at the same time requires pre-registration at https://active.fdotd7studies.com/us301/fowler-to-sr56/

The public hearing is one of the steps needed before the ongoing project development and environmental study is completed later this year. There is no money budgeted to buy rights of way or to begin construction.

The timeline wasn’t well-received in Pasco.

“Even when it is funded, it takes six or seven years to get it done,” said Smith, the Zephyrhills City Council member. “And then people are screaming about it because it’s already antiquated by the time it’s constructed.”

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