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Road improvements coming but not as fast as growth in south Hillsborough

The backup from a traffic accident on Interstate 75 in Gibsonton on Monday shows how roads leading to and from major arteries in the south county area have failed to keep up with growth. [MARC TOPKIN   |   Times]
The backup from a traffic accident on Interstate 75 in Gibsonton on Monday shows how roads leading to and from major arteries in the south county area have failed to keep up with growth. [MARC TOPKIN | Times]
Published Mar. 26, 2018

APOLLO BEACH — The once sleepy southeastern portion of Hillsborough County is sleepy no more and Hillsborough County officials are scrambling to keep up with infrastructure needs.

Meanwhile, motorists in the south county region continue to spend time fighting congested traffic to and from work.

Relief is coming, Public Works Director John Lyons says, but it will take time and a lot of money — and there are no guarantees planned improvements will keep up with residential and commercial growth.

This month, the county got a boost from a $5 million state appropriation to begin work on Big Bend Road west of Apollo Beach and its intersection with three major north-south arteries: Interstate 75, U.S. 301 and U.S. 41.

Between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301, Big Bend Road serves East Bay High School, St. Joseph's Hospital South and major retail centers such as a Sam's Club and a Neighborhood Walmart.

Then there is traffic from multiple new residential communities, including Summerfield, Waterleaf, Royal Lakes, Village Brook and Waterset.

"This is just one of the critical corridors we need to get fixed," Lyons said. "A lot of growth has happened in the south county. Developments have pushed the road's limits."

The state's $5 million contribution, one of the few local projects not vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott, will be used primarily for initial planning, engineering and right-of-way acquisition.

The Big Bend Road project is expected to take 10 years and cost about $75 million, much of it yet to be funded. The will be done in phases, eventually expanding the existing four lanes to six lanes.

The first phase will involve making ramp improvements to the existing Interstate 75 interchange, improving traffic signaling, and adding two limited-access lanes.

A second phase will include a new northbound on-ramp and a new southbound off-ramp onto Big Bend Road.

"In reality, we are looking at two years before any construction starts," Lyons said. "People are going to have to wait a bit longer for relief."

Meanwhile, the county is planning other south county roadway improvements, including extending Apollo Beach Boulevard and changing signal timing on U.S. 301 and U.S. 41 to improve traffic flow.

The developer of Waterset is contributing to a project to extend Paseo Al Mar Boulevard from U.S. 41 to residential communities west of Interstate 75.

"This would create a new east-west corridor in about four years," Lyons said.

In addition, within the next year, the county hopes to begin widening 19th Avenue on the northern border of Sun City to four lanes to ease traffic there.

Currently, there are more than 500 active road projects countywide.

Lyons said more than $100 million needs to be spent every year on roadway improvements "for the foreseeable future" to keep up with population and development growth.

At a workshop last week, county officials presented their latest population growth estimates, emphasizing the pressures they will put on transportation and infrastructure.

The report says Hillsborough County's population is expected to grow by 150 percent in the next 27 years, much of it in the south county area.

Officials estimated the county's current population of 1.3 million people will surge to over 2 million by 2045, consuming about 54,000 acres of vacant land and forcing major density increases in already developed areas.

Roadways are inadequate for people driving from south county homes to the major north-south transportation corridors of U.S. 301, Interstate 75 and U.S. 41, said Lucia Garsys, the county's chief administrator of development and infrastructure services.

The county will need millions of dollars for an estimated 700 miles of new streets by 2045, said Melissa Zornitta, Planning Commission executive director. That doesn't include money for expanding major roadway corridors, Zornitta said.

In addition to the Big Bend project, the county is fast-tracking expanding 42nd and 46th streets and 19th and 131st avenues in central and north Tampa, as well as Lithia-Pinecrest Road south of Brandon.

The plans do not address rapid transit projects to reduce pressure on roadways, county officials said.

County Commission Chairwomanman Sandra Murman suggested the county consider building a rapid transit system along U.S. 41 when the state Department of Transportation widens the roadway to three lanes. That plan is under consideration, Garsys said.

"The elephant in the room is transportation," County Commissioner Les Miller said. "Everybody cannot work in the neighborhood where they live. It is just not going to happen."

Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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