TAMPA — David Gwynn, the state’s regional transportation secretary, periodically drives U.S. 301, traveling from Tampa to meetings in Pasco County.
He does something else on the two-lane road. He speeds. It’s not his planned intent, he said, particularly when he operates a state-issued car. But he also has to account for other motorists.
“I try to stay pretty close to the speed limit, but if I do I’m always worried because people will pass you without thinking,” he told the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization Wednesday.
“I find myself going over the speed limit just to keep people from erratically passing me.”
Gwynn’s acknowledgement came as he announced planned safety improvements for the highway — installation of three traffic signals at problematic, crash-prone intersections.
A motivation for trying to make the highway safer came less than 16 hours later. A four-vehicle crash, including a head-on collision, just before 3 a.m. Thursday killed two people and left two others with serious injuries. The accident shut down the road, a commuter route between Zephyrhills and the Temple Terrace area, for more than six hours.
“It’s an extraordinarily dangerous road,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp.
State data shows 16 people died and 338 were injured in 464 crashes on the highway in a five-year period ending in 2019. That crash rate is twice the statewide average for similar roads.
Reminders of the carnage are visible every day.
“Just count the roadside memorials,” Lance Smith, a Zephyrhills City Council member and chairman of the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization, said in a recent interview.
Speeding is the top problem, Gwynn said, with impatient drivers trying dangerous passing maneuvers. There were 24 head-on crashes, or nearly five a year, documented by the state between 2015-19.
“It is tough. Without all full-time (law) enforcement there’s not a lot of ways to slow it down in that type of corridor,” he said.
The traffic signals will be installed at the U.S. 301 intersections at Stacy, McIntosh and Harney roads. Gwynn did not announce a timetable for the installations.
Those, however, are considered stop-gap measures. The state Department of Transportation envisions turning the two-lane road into a four-lane divided highway between State Road 56 in Pasco and Fowler Avenue — a distance of 13.1 miles. That plan is in the study stage. There is no money budgeted for buying right of way or for construction. The estimated cost is $199.5 million.
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The idea is well-received in Pasco County, where daily commuters sometimes wait in miles-long back-ups to cross SR 56. In Hillsborough, however, officials are concerned about widening a road in a largely rural part of the county featuring large swaths of preserved land. They also question how raising the speed limit to 65 mph will increase safety.
“Certainly, we are all concerned with safety and making this road more safe,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith. “I am concerned that the project won’t make the road more safe. Raising the speed limits makes the road more dangerous.”
Gwynn acknowledged the proposed widening likely will be tweaked in the southern portion of the project to reduce the speed limit to 45 mph. However, a four-lane highway divided by a median should reduce head-on collisions, he said
Regardless, the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization ― elected and appointed officials ― voted 11-0 last week to put their objections in writing to state road planners.
Gwynn said the state began examining a wider U.S. 301 in 2015 because of the number of accidents and future traffic projections. As many as 49,300 vehicles could use the road in 2040 if all of the proposed developments in the Zephyrhills area come to fruition.
“When you think about the demand for 50,000 vehicles,” Gwynn said, “it’s got to go somewhere.”