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  1. Pasco

You drive a golf cart around town? You're not going to like this

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Timothy Smelley, of New Port Richey, heads south over the US 19 bridge at the Pithlachascotee River on Tuesday (4/23/19) where the river divides the cities of Port Richey and New Port Richey.
Published Aug. 12

DADE CITY — A 12-year quest to put an underpass trail at U.S. 19 and the Pithlachascotee River in Port Richey just hit another bump.

The city of New Port Richey says it likely won't participate in the project with the city of Port Richey and Pasco County if the path isn't wide enough to accommodate golf cart traffic.

That is a distinct possibility because the state Department of Transportation, citing federal codes, doesn't fund trails that allow motorized vehicles such as golf carts. Local officials had been looking for state dollars to help finance the underpass construction.

Even that idea is in doubt, at least for this year, after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $1 million from the state budget that had been earmarked for the Miller's Bayou waterfront to design and build the pedestrian path.

"We looked at it as an economic driver'' linking Port Richey's waterfront to downtown New Port Richey, said Jeff Starkey, the city's deputy mayor and chairman of the Pasco Metropolitan Organization. Without golf cart traffic, Starkey said, "it doesn't make sense. It just doesn't benefit the city.''

Starkey's comments came last week in Dade City to the Metropolitan Planning Organization — elected county and municipal officials sitting as transportation planners. Both the cities of Port Richey and New Port Richey have embraced golf-cart traffic on some municipal streets, but the state and federal spending restrictions are guided by safety concerns.

"If there are crashes on that (underpass) bridge, it could be catastrophic,'' said Ross Kevlin, the transportation board's acting transportation planner.

County Commissioner Jack Mariano said the project should proceed, regardless, and the golf cart traffic could be addressed later. But Commissioner Mike Wells voiced support for Starkey.

"The priority is golf carts,'' said Wells.

New Port Richey, Port Richey and the county are splitting the $50,000 cost of an ongoing feasibility study of the underpass. The idea has been kicked around for at least a dozen years, but gained renewed urgency after a rash of pedestrian fatalities. Two years ago, there were 44 vehicle crashes involving pedestrians, including nine fatalities, on the Pasco County portion of U.S. 19.

Separately, a path allowing walkers, bicyclists and golf cart occupants to travel underneath the highway at the river is considered a key tool to redeveloping Port Richey's waterfront. The path would be on the north side of the existing U.S. 19 bridge within the Port Richey city limits.

When proposed initially, the path was part of an eventual link for a trail stretching from the Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park west of U.S. 19 to the Suncoast Trail, adjacent to the Suncoast Parkway in central Pasco. In 2007, a Port Richey-commissioned study recommended building a walkway under the bridge using the existing riverbank, rather than constructing a foot bridge. City officials, however, touted a more grandiose plan of a floating structure moored off the bridge embankment.

The project stalled after Port Richey officials acknowledged they didn't have the money for construction. There is no cost estimate yet for the current proposal.

A June 19 stakeholders meeting on the project drew more than 55 people, about two thirds of whom supported allowing golf cart use, according to an Aug. 7 county memorandum. Absent a special exception from the state or federal departments of transportation, other funding sources could be considered, the memo said, such as the Penny for Pasco sales tax proceeds, other government dollars and even crowd-funding.

AECOM, the consultant working on the feasibility study, is scheduled to present its preliminary findings to a joint cities-county workshop on Sept. 24.

"It's a tough sell for us,'' Starkey reiterated, "if it's just for pedestrian use.''

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

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