1. Transportation

New DOT work plan includes $32 million for U.S. 41/SR 54 interchange

LAND O'LAKES — Twenty-one months ago, the Florida Department of Transportation said it was hitting the brakes on planning improvements at a traffic-clogged intersection in central Pasco.

Instead, the DOT said it would await recommendations from Pasco County and a citizens task force before advancing a proposed fix for the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54. The DOT pause, at the county's request, came after public objections to a planned flyover elevating SR 54 above north-south traffic on U.S. 41.

Now, the state is putting its foot back on the gas, even though the citizens task force has yet to finalize a recommendation. DOT's tentative five-year work program, dated Oct. 17, includes nearly $32 million to buy right of way for a new interchange at SR 54/U.S. 41 beginning in 2022.

"Interesting,'' said Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. "Actually, that's good. I guess they're starting to plan for something there, even if we don't know what it is.''

The enthusiasm wasn't universal, particularly among Land O'Lakes residents who have advocated that the DOT pursue a no-build alternative.

"They're going to do whatever they want to do because they already have a plan,'' said Christie Zimmer, a Land O'Lakes real estate agent and a member of the citizens task force.

DOT regional spokeswoman Kris Carson said the specific dollar amount, listed at $31,937,100 in the tentative work plan, is "a conservative amount programmed in the last year of the work program, so this gives the county plenty of time to conduct outreach and get the community's vision for this area.''

The dollar amount can go up or down or be shifted for a different purpose if the county recommends the no-build option, Carson said.

The citizens task force, assembled by the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization of county commissioners and elected city officeholders, has been considering a dozen options for the intersection, including doing nothing. Five of the proposals include elevating SR 54 for vehicles and/or mass transit above U.S. 41. Other ideas call for at-grade improvements to the intersection and adding frontage roads.

Preliminary estimates for right-of-way costs range from as little as $1.7 million (building four elevated lanes in the existing right of way) up to $110 million for what is known as a parallel flow intersection in which left-turning cars bypass the intersection via frontage roads.

The MPO put together the task force after severe community push-back against a 2014 proposal from a private company to build and operate an elevated toll road along the State Road 54/56 corridor between U.S. 19 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The DOT pulled the plug on that idea when the company said it needed public subsidies in order for the $2 billion project to work.

Amid the citizens group's work, the DOT also put forth the idea of a flyover taking SR 54 traffic over U.S. 41, a project that could cost as much as $180 million and affect two dozen businesses, two homes and a county fire station. The Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce opposed the plan, and 15 of 19 speakers at a Land O'Lakes public hearing in December 2015 also objected. Two months later, the DOT agreed to wait for the task force recommendations.

The right-of-way money is separate from a planned short-term fix to extend turn lanes for eastbound motorists on SR 54, allowing through traffic easier access to the intersection. That work is projected to be done in 2019 at a cost of about $1 million.

Approximately 99,000 vehicles pass through the U.S. 41/SR 54 intersection daily, and growth projections call for daily traffic to increase to 208,000 vehicles over the next 25 years.

A flyover at the intersection has been discussed for more than two decades after a community uproar killed a planned east-west highway through Lutz to connect the Veterans Expressway and Interstate 75. Later, the state built a new interchange at I-75 and SR 56 and widened both SR 54 and 56 to six lanes, effectively turning that stretch of highway into the de facto east-west route.

"I'm glad they're starting to plan something,'' said Starkey. "There has to be a decision made. We can't continue the way it is.''