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Road planners to study underpass at central Pasco bottleneck

OCTAVIO JONES | Times Pasco County's Metropolitan Planning Organization wants to find out how much it would cost to build a tunnerl under the traffic congestion at the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in central Pasco.
Published Jan. 18, 2018

DADE CITY — Pasco County's transportation board wants to find out if a big dig will work at the congested intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54.

County commissioners and elected officials from Pasco's cities, sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, agreed last week to find out how much it could cost to build an underpass taking traffic beneath the existing highways.

The push for the cost study came as the organization was about to hear recommendations from its citizens task force, which spent two years studying potential improvements to the intersection and the entire State Road 54/56 corridor. The group had winnowed 18 alternatives to four recommendations, including building elevated lanes above the intersection, at-grade improvements, and its top choice — a network of frontage roads known as a parallel-flow intersection. It did not study building new highway lanes below the intersection.

"I'm not saying it's the right option, but we need to look at every possibility,'' said Commissioner Mike Moore.

If an analysis determines the underpass is financially viable, then the MPO will send the proposal to the task force for additional vetting before it considers the group's final recommendations. The cost study is not expected to be completed until April.

After the task force recommendations are complete, the MPO must approve the alternatives for additional study by the Florida Department of Transportation. Eleven months ago, DOT put on hold its own examination of a $180 million flyover at the intersection until the task force finished its work.

David Gwynn, state transportation secretary for the Tampa Bay district, said he was unaware of an underpass at a similar-sized intersection in Florida.

"It doesn't mean it can't be done, but we've got to see what's feasible,'' he said.

An underpass at the intersection could reduce complaints about potential economic harm to businesses, the taking of private property and ugly aesthetics that would accompany building highway lanes above the intersection. But there are questions about whether an underpass can be dug given the area's water table and propensity to sinkholes.

"You start digging, it gets pretty wet,'' said Sandy Graves of Land O' Lakes, a task force member. "I don't know how that would work with that intersection.''

Earlier, Charles Puccini of Trinity, a commercial real estate agent and the former CEO of Bauer Foundation of Odessa, which does subterranean construction work, urged the MPO to avoid overpasses like those that dominate the U.S. 19 corridor in Pinellas County.

"Pay very close attention to whatever the solution,to make sure the traffic doesn't effectively block ... the expectation of the investors who've invested in the county,'' he said. "Make sure the solutions selected do not effectively block and damage the economy in Pasco County.''

Approximately 100,000 vehicles pass through the U.S. 41/SR 54 intersection daily, and growth projections call for that traffic count to more than double to 208,000 vehicles over the next 25 years. DOT and the county are working on 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 expected to start this summer at a cost of less than $1 million.

Separately, the state's new five-year transportation program includes nearly $32 million to buy right of way for a new interchange at SR 54/U.S. 41 beginning in 2022

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @ctbowen2

PAST COVERAGE: New intersection design favored.

PAST COVERAGE: Road recommendation questioned.

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