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SR 56 wait is over; now enjoy the ride

By LISA BUIE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002

When the Suncoast Parkway opened last year, cannons disgorged streamers and confetti. A high school band marched right there on the blacktop. Dignitaries cut ribbons and posed for photos. Pasco Commissioner Steve Simon extolled the road's "connectivity."

Fast forward to Thursday, when the barricades to State Road 56 finally came down.

Where were the marching bands, the speeches, the confetti?

Even the environmentalist protesters who came to the parkway opening in rubber pig snouts stayed home.

The most colorful spectacle to see here was orange-vested crews scrambling until the last minute, moving 50-pound barricades and throwing reflective beads onto striping that had yet to dry.

Granted, the parkway is a $500-million project that spans three counties, while SR 56 cost only $30-million and is confined to a 3-mile stretch of central Pasco.

But for those of us who live in Wesley Chapel, Land O'Lakes and New Tampa, SR 56 is our parkway.

Because none of our county commissioners could make it Thursday, I'll extol this road's "connectivity."

The four- to six-lane highway hooks up State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes, Interstate 75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Wesley Chapel. For New Tampa residents, it's also a faster way to get to Interstate 275.

It was a long time in coming. The original completion date was June 2001, but weather and construction delays kept pushing back the opening. Seeing those barrels and "Road Closed" signs at each end nearly a year longer than expected just added to residents' frustration.

Before Thursday, driving was a nightmare. People who lived in Land O'Lakes had to drive way out of their way on a clogged SR 54 to get on Interstate 75 or Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

To get to the Muvico or other shopping centers in New Tampa, the best bet was to take County Line Road, not a route for the faint of heart.

You had to brave the hazardous mismatched intersection of Collier Parkway, Livingston Avenue and County Line Road.

For Wesley Chapel residents, the situation was just as frightening.

To get to I-75, you had a choice: Drive about 6 miles out of your way north to catch the interchange at SR 54 or endure Bruce B. Downs, which has too many stoplights and endless gridlock no matter what time of day.

My husband, who commutes to work in St. Petersburg, had to take Bruce B. Downs all the way to Bearss Avenue to catch I-275. It often took him more than half an hour just to get to the interchange.

Judging from some of the e-mail I received, SR 56 couldn't come fast enough.

"I sit in the Bruce B. Downs traffic every day and wonder when people are just going to get out of their cars and riot," wrote New Tampa resident Cindy Kelly.

Transportation officials say the delays were not unusual but seemed longer because it was a new road and not a widening.

"People couldn't see the progress," said Kenneth Hartmann, the District 7 secretary for the state Department of Transportation.

However, all was forgiven Thursday afternoon. Smiles were plentiful as the first cars tested the asphalt, even though there was no ceremony.

Some people cheered. Others called their spouses to let them know they'd be home sooner. Some even turned around and tried the road again.

"It's great," said Bruce McGee as he waited at the intersection with Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. He was on his way back to Zephyrhills and was overjoyed that he could avoid the traffic on SR 54.

For now, the highway resembles an interstate, with pastures and trees on each side.

That won't last long.

Those driveway cuts you see are for developers. In six years, that big green spot where the new road joins with SR 54 is likely to be replaced by Cypress Creek Town Center, a 1.3-million-square-foot mall that would be larger than any in the Tampa Bay area except Tyrone Square.

Cypress Creek Town Center also calls for 700 hotel rooms, 882 apartments, a 600,000-square-foot "retail center" across from the mall and 420,000 square feet of offices. Developers also plan a 200,000-square-foot expansion of the mall by 2011.

So enjoy the hassle-free drive, but don't get too comfy with it. In a few years, folks will probably start clamoring for a new State Road 58 to avoid the mess on SR 56.

For now, though, SR 56 is a godsend. Like me, I'm sure you're having fun thinking of all the ways you can use it.

It's probably best that no dignitaries spoke Thursday.

We probably would have run them over.

-- Lisa Buie is the editor of the central/east edition of the Pasco Times. You can reach her at (813) 909-4604 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4604. Her e-mail address is

buie@sptimes.com.

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