LITHIA — Hunter Pflueger and his family moved from Riverview to a neighborhood in Lithia last summer. Initially, the 4.5-mile commute to his job took only 11 minutes on Lithia Pinecrest Road and Bloomingdale Avenue.
But then the school year started and so did the traffic back-ups. Pflueger gets stuck on two-lane Lithia Pinecrest in the school zone for Foundation Christian Academy, one of three schools in the vicinity. His commute on an average day now takes 20 minutes.
Do the math: That’s a pace of less than 14 mph.
On some days, he said, it can take up to a half-hour.
“You don’t know the traffic until you’re actually sitting in it every single day to get a full understanding of what it’s like,” he said. “It’s awful.”
Unsnarling that bottleneck emerged as one proposal to spend money collected from a transportation sales tax ruled invalid by the state Supreme Court. While it has failed to muster support, the pricetag underscored the toll coming due for years of unchecked growth in southeastern Hillsborough County.
“It’s been on the map for so long for east Hillsborough County and nothing’s been done,” said county Commissioner Michael Owen. “It’s a travesty trying to move down that road during rush hour.”
Lithia Pinecrest, a north-south route owned by Hillsborough County, links the sprawling suburbs in Valrico and Lithia to the commercial hubs along State Road 60 in Brandon. It also provides commuter access westward to Interstate 75 and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.
It is part of the region represented by Owen whose district includes the eastern and southern portions of the county. Just as his predecessor, Commissioner Stacy White, did before him, Owen is pushing hard for the county to widen the road to four lanes.
Rush-hour congestion shouldn’t be unexpected. That happens elsewhere in the county, too, on Big Bend Road in south county or on Van Dyke Road in northwest Hillsborough.
But, even on a late-morning, weekday drive, vehicles traveling Lithia Pinecrest face bottlenecks at Bloomingdale Avenue and again at South Miller Road. The close proximity of the two traffic signal prohibits an easy traversing of the intersections. It means daily delays for motorists just trying to get to the elementary school, Sprouts Farmers Market, WaWa or Crunch Fitness.
“You don’t drive. You just stay still,” said Suzy Watts, president of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood Association, which has long advocated for a wider Lithia Pinecrest Road on behalf of the group’s 5,200 households.
So, too, has the chamber of commerce.
“It’s critical that something happen to alleviate pressure on that road,” said Matt Lettelleir, president and CEO of the Brandon Chamber of Commerce.
The Brandon boom
The roots of the traffic crush can be traced to the summer of 1986 when the completion of I-75 and the extension of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway paved the way for Brandon to transform from farms to single-family neighborhoods. Bloomingdale, the area’s first master planned community, actually got going a half dozen years before the completed highways. It’s now home to more than 25,000 people.
Later came approval for 7,000 homes in the FishHawk Ranch community off Lithia Pinecrest. It added an average of 1,000 new residents a year between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census. That’s the equivalent of a family of four moving into the neighborhood every Monday through Friday for a decade. It, too, now has a population of nearly 25,000 residents.
Developer-friendly county commissioners green-lit the new construction.
But they didn’t adjust the transportation fees charged on new homes and businesses to help pay for the roads needed to accommodate the growth. The fees stayed the same for 27 years, before commissioners agreed to increase them in 2016 and then did so again in 2020.
In 2017, the Urban Land Institute, a highly regarded, non-partisan government consultant, urged the county to limit growth outside the area it planned to provide urban amenities, such as water and sewer lines, in the near term. A commission majority ignored the recommendations, paving the way for a neighborhood to sprout on a former farm off Lithia Pinecrest. Later, a different commission excused a developer from the requirement to provide a commercial node within a new Lithia housing development — forcing new home buyers to drive north to FishHawk Ranch for groceries and other sundries.
The end result is frustrated motorists staring at a line of brake lights in front of them on a two-lane road.
“Poor planning,” Owen said. “Building got ahead of the roads.”
Complaints about traffic congestion date to the early 2000s, said Watts. She said she retired from her job as a hospice nurse two years ago at the age of 57, in part, because of the daily stress of confronting clogged roads while traveling to patients’ homes.
In 2009, citizens pushed for the road widening to be included in the county’s long-term transportation plan. But the county’s transportation planning agency declined to do so.
Planners said the project failed to meet several benchmarks to become a priority. There was no funding for it. It did not connect large economic centers. It was not a high-crash corridor. Despite traffic complaints, the wider road wasn’t recognized as a legitimate need until 2040.
It also drew objections from other residents. A wider Lithia Pinecrest Road stoked fears of still more growth by easing access to the agricultural land south of Fishhawk Boulevard.
Restarting the fight
Members of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood Association resurrected the public debate in 2016, citing public safety concerns as a key reason to widen the road. White pushed in 2021 to include $225,000 in the county budget to start planning the wider route.
White also had a pot of money in mind to pay for the construction. After the Florida Supreme Court voided the county’s 1% sales tax on transportation in February 2021, White proposed to spend the escrowed proceeds on Lithia Pinecrest. The money, nearly $570 million, is now in the hands of the state Department of Revenue, which recently solicited transportation spending ideas from the county. Gov. Ron DeSantis also proposed a public refund of the tax proceeds before the transportation spending can start.
That’s the same pot of money that Owen is seeking to tap. On Wednesday, he and the rest of the commission are scheduled to finalize their list of transportation projects to be forwarded to the state.
An initial list from the county staff included $10 million to design the wider Lithia Pinecrest Road. Owen wants the construction dollars added to the list.
The cost estimate is $216 million, according to the county’s web site, a 125% increase over the projected $96 million expense floated in 2016.
Commission chairperson Ken Hagan said the money should be earmarked for projects closer to being shovel-ready — like widening two miles of Van Dyke Road in his district. Lithia Pinecrest is years away from construction because the project must be designed and the necessary right of way acquired before the bulldozers arrive.
“It makes no sense whatsoever to set aside a specific amount of money to have it just parked there for four to five years,” Hagan said, “when we have hundreds of millions (of dollars worth) of shovel-ready projects that those dollars can go to work now.”
Owen said he anticipates being alone on the push for Lithia Pinecrest Road construction. He earlier told the rest of the commission he would lobby the Legislature to try to steer the money his way.
Meanwhile, motorists like Pfleuger sit behind the steering wheel and wait.
“This entire area was never designed for this many people,” he said.