NEW PORT RICHEY — Over a six-year period, 14 people, including five pedestrians, were killed in traffic crashes near the U.S. 19 intersection with Beacon Woods Drive in Hudson.
The intersection serves as the western access point to the sprawling Beacon Woods community, but also doubles as a one-way exit from the 35-acre Walmart Supercenter site at the northeast corner. Traffic in the area has been problematic since the store opened nine years ago. Beacon Woods shoppers are forced to drive out to U.S. 19 to return to their neighborhood from the store, and Leisure Beach and Country Club Estates residents must confront heavy traffic while trying to pull out of their own neighborhoods on the north side of Walmart.
Toss in pedestrians who don't cross at the Beacon Woods Drive crosswalk, speeders and drivers routinely making illegal U-turns in an area that has 52,000 vehicles driving past it each day, and the consequences have become deadly.
"One thing that resonates with people,'' said County Commissioner Jack Mariano, who has lobbied for years for the state to add another highway traffic signal. "They're tired of seeing people die out there.''
On Tuesday, Pasco commissioners received a preview of the safety improvements planned for the area, including a roundabout on Beacon Woods Drive between the southern exit of the Walmart and the northern border of the neighboring Kmart store. The plan also calls for access roads within the Walmart property and, most notably, a future traffic signal at Beach Boulevard, Dipaola Drive and U.S. 19 in front of the Leisure Beach and Country Club Estates neighborhoods.
The state Department of Transportation is installing the traffic light, but only after the county completes the other improvements. The work is expected to begin in 2019 at a cost of $700,000.
Just adding the access routes from Walmart to Beacon Woods and Dipaola drives is expected to reduce the number of vehicles making U-turns on U.S. 19 by 86 during peak travel times.
The changes, however, didn't get a unanimous endorsement from some Beacon Woods residents.
"I look at the roundabout and I say the seniors who are driving through that thing are going to be so confused,'' said Salvatore Pizzarello, 86, of Fairway Drive. "It's going to cause more problems.''
One concern among the Beacon Woods residents is the amount of traffic in their neighborhood from motorists using Beacon Woods Drive as a shortcut to either State Road 52 or Little Road.
"The biggest problem we have is cut-through traffic,'' said Bill Bunting, a director of the Beacon Woods Civic Association, who said motorists leaving Walmart often make illegal turns to head east on Beacon Woods Drive, even though the store's exit is designed as a right-turn only to send cars away from the neighborhood and toward U.S. 19.
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He advocated for the installation of speed humps, similar to those on Grand Boulevard in New Port Richey, to slow vehicles cutting through Beacon Woods.
"It's common sense,'' Bunting said in an interview.
Though the traffic woes have been known for years, public pressure ramped up in November after a motorcyclist was killed near Beach Boulevard. The death of Robert Leroy Cartwright, a fiddler in the Bearded Brothers Band, sparked an online petition drive that drew more than 1,000 signatures from people seeking a traffic light where U.S. 19, Beach Boulevard and Dipaola Drive intersect.
"A roundabout is a perfect solution,'' said Mariano. "It's the right thing to do now . . . before anyone else dies out there.''