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  1. Transportation

Bowen: Failing to connect on transportation hurts two communities

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Published Jul. 29, 2015

A pair of Pasco County communities are raising concerns about connectivity.

As in getting from here to there. One wants a road. One wants a bus. And both can gripe legitimately that their voices haven't been heard for nearly 20 years.

We'll start in the east, where a motorist driving to Walgreens, Buddy's Home Furnishings or Winn-Dixie along U.S. 301 in Dade City must turn west onto Morningside Drive, which ends just behind the businesses. Then let's say the motorist is headed to visit a friend at the Bayfront Health Dade City hospital. They must drive south on U.S. 301, turn west on the newly widened Clinton Avenue and then head north on Fort King Road. After this circuitous trip of nearly 4 miles, the driver reaches — ready? — Morningside Drive, which from this point extends west to State Road 52, running between Pasco High School and the Pasco County Fairgrounds. The hospital, however, fronts on the yet-to-be-built eastward extension between Fort King Road and U.S. 301.

The city wants to connect its Morningside Drives to improve a grid system between U.S. 301 and State Road 52. It also, let's face it, would allow some empty land to become ripe for development and bolster the city's tax base. The hospital wants the connection, too, pointing out the public safety aspect of an unnecessarily inefficient ambulance route to emergency medical care.

"Keeping the patient in mind, the access to health care is paramount,'' hospital CEO Shauna McKinnon recently told the Metropolitan Planning Organization — county commissioners and city officials sitting in their transportation planning role.

This is not a new message. Seventeen years ago, county road planners conducted a public survey to determine the most important transportation needs facing the people who lived and worked in Pasco.

Can you guess the top priority in east Pasco? The extension of Morningside Drive. It got 208 votes, mostly from hospital employees. The second-highest priority received 41 votes.

Seventeen years and no immediate relief in sight. This must be why they call it the long-range transportation plan.

To jump-start this project, the city, last year, commissioned an environmental study of the route. It's a good start. But to enhance the opportunities for construction, it would behoove Dade City to expedite adoption of transportation impact fees, which the city suspended in 2012. It's hard to build new roads when you're giving a free pass to development.

Access also is the topic in Land O'Lakes. Getting around that central Pasco community means driving, walking, biking or hitching a ride with an acquaintance. If you're close to State Road 54, you can grab the Pasco County bus, but only if you're heading east or west.

A community dominated by north-south routes has no north-south bus service circulating among U.S. 41, Collier Parkway or the Pasco portion of N Dale Mabry Highway.

It means the county's library branch, the county parks at the recreation center and community center, the state Health Department, the county Utilities building, the Pasco School District headquarters, the county detention center, the county government offices for constitutional officers and grocery and department stores aren't readily accessible to people who don't drive.

Pasco County Public Transportation added a cross-county route along State Road 54/56 three years ago. But a north-south circulator remains a distant possibility, and the distance is getting longer.

Seven years ago, a 10-year mass transit plan called for the Land O'Lakes circulator to begin in 2015. A year later, the county's 25-year transportation plan said the service would start by 2024. The latest version of the county's long-range transportation plan, approved by county commissioners in December, pushed the service out to 2031, 16 years later than the original proposal.

Christie Zimmer, a single mother of two teenagers, is vice chairman of the citizens committee advising the MPO. She's been lobbying for the Land O'Lakes bus service for years and points out how teenagers without cars have no way to get from Land O'Lakes High School to the employment opportunities at the malls in Wesley Chapel or, more importantly, to the collegiate offerings at the Porter Campus of Pasco-Hernando State College.

"How many parents can afford to go pick them up at the high school and take them to campus and wait and bring them home? It's not feasible,'' Zimmer said. "These kid are losing out on the potential for a better education because we can't provide transportation.''

Her sentiments are shared by the Oasis Pregnancy Center, tax collector Mike Fasano, the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce and the citizens advisory committee.

It's not an isolated case, but the challenge to transportation officials is balancing demands for service with available dollars.

Under the proposed 2016 county budget, Pasco County Public Transportation will start a bus service to Moon Lake in west Pasco, a route originally scheduled to begin in 2007 but long delayed by constrained government budgets. The county also wants to connect its bus system to the Hernando County system in Spring Hill. Other planned improvements, though still years away, include adding night and Sunday service and running buses more frequently on existing routes.

But, all the improvements, Zimmer noted dryly, benefit locations outside of central Pasco.

"We're still,'' she said, "the poor stepchild of the county.''