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The clogged commute

The bay area's stunning growth during the past 10 years means motorists are spending more time each day on the road. The experts say get used to it.

JEAN HELLER and MATTHEW WAITE
Published November 30, 2003

Scott Laugherty can't decide which part of his daily commute from Brandon to St. Petersburg he hates the most.

Laugherty first says it's getting through traffic at the Westfield Shoppingtown Brandon during the holidays. Then he changes his mind.

"It's going through downtown Tampa, where you can get stuck at every single traffic light on Ashley Street," he said. "No, wait, it's where the Veterans Expressway dumps traffic onto the interstate. Whoever designed that is the biggest idiot on earth."

In other words, the computer programmer for Jabil Circuits sees nothing good about the trip he makes from east Hillsborough to central Pinellas each day. It took 35 minutes when he started in 1998, but now it takes an hour or more.

Like Laugherty, a lot of people are driving more and enjoying it less. Rush hours in the Tampa Bay area are creeping out into a daylong crush of heavy traffic.

And the future, according to those paid to predict it, looks both better and worse.

WHAT'S BETTER: The coming retirement of baby boomers will lessen their driving and take thousands of bay area residents off the roads during peak hours. In addition, in the next five years, the reconstruction of the junction of Interstates 4 and 275 in Tampa will be completed. In Pinellas County, U.S. 19 will be well on its way to becoming traffic-light free from 49th Street north to Klosterman Road.

WHAT'S WORSE: Even the retirement of boomers will not offset the area's remarkable growth rate, which is twice the national average. Plus, the retirement trend works in reverse in some places, such as southwest Pasco County, where retirement enclaves are giving way to communities of young families who drive the most. In addition, traffic planners say the region's population centers are too many and too dispersed to be served by mass transportation.

A Times examination of Florida Department of Transportation traffic counts for the past 10 years and projections made for the next five confirm motorists' suspicions: Traffic is growing faster than asphalt and concrete can be laid.

Traffic grew an average of 23 percent over the past 10 years at 56 traffic-counting sites the Times analyzed. Of those 56, 10 grew more than 50 percent. Four places - two on I-275, two on I-75 - will see 20 percent traffic growth in the next five years.

The whys of traffic congestion are as varied as the trouble spots themselves. It can be something as simple as a new Wal-Mart Supercenter on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park or a new Home Depot in Land O'Lakes.

Or it can be a situation as complex as the burgeoning development in south Hillsborough County, some of which has taken road planners by surprise. Although state law requires large-scale developments to submit traffic projections to the state DOT, builders often plan developments just under that threshold to bypass the costly permitting process.

"Eastern and southern Hillsborough are seeing a lot of road anomalies because builders are doing that," said Dan Lamb, systems planning administrator for the DOT. "You put several smaller developments together and they make a major impact."

There is no easy way to get ahead of the region's traffic headaches. But it could be worse.

"The problems here are a lot less severe than in a number of other states," said Steve Polzin of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. "We're underinvesting in transportation, and our system is more fragile than I wish it were. But flip it around, and we're getting more out of what we have."

Miami, Washington, D.C., Seattle and some places in California are much worse off than this region, he said. Cleveland, St. Louis, Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y., which have lost population, are better off.

Pinellas County

Looking back decades at Pinellas County road-building decisions is an exercise in what-ifs. All the experts agree it could have been done a lot better.

An interstate serves the southeast portion of the county, but everyone else suffers with U.S. 19, McMullen-Booth Road, Ulmerton Road, Roosevelt Boulevard and Alt. U.S. 19.

For those who live on the beaches, Gulf Boulevard can be hopeless during tourist season, and road planners say there are few options to make it better. The Bryan Dairy Road link to the interstate somewhat helped east-west travelers in mid county. But with a half-dozen traffic lights that aren't synchronized, the drive is anything but hassle-free.

Traffic planners agree that little thought went into past road programs, but they hope to change that with future improvements.

Rita Chmela needs help now.

If she leaves her Pinellas Park house near Pinellas ParkSide mall at exactly 6:15 a.m., she can get to her job at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater in 30 minutes.

"If I leave even five minutes later, or if I do anything that consumes even a few minutes, like stopping for gas or going to the post office, it adds 20 minutes to the trip," Chmela said.

The future holds little in the way of improvements for Pinellas County west of U.S. 19. The county plans some work on Belcher Road, and Ulmerton is supposed to be widened, but that's about it.

"Those streets are locked in," DOT's Lamb said. "We'll try to improve signals and other things that will help traffic move better. We can't widen Gulf Boulevard, and to tell you the truth, the people who live along the beaches don't want it widened."

The north-south emphasis will always be on U.S. 19, Pinellas County's Main Street.

It carries more traffic than most interstates. Overpasses from Gandy/Park Boulevard north to the Pasco line, which will turn the road into a light-free thruway, will cost at least $500-million.

"About 30 years ago there was talk of making U.S. 19 an interstate, but it didn't happen," said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "Bad decision."

The county will make some additional improvements to McMullen-Booth Road, but nearby residents don't want it to become a major reliever for U.S. 19, Lamb said. Yet already, it has helped traffic on roads to the west.

For example, 66th Street north of Ulmerton Road lost 33 percent of its traffic over the past 10 years and is forecast to lose an additional 13 percent in the next five.

South of Park Boulevard, there's not much else to do, planners say. The road system, as they say, is "mature." But that doesn't mean road construction in built-out Pinellas is through. There's always maintenance.

"Manhattan Island was built out in the 1840s," Lamb said. "Are you going to argue that there's been no growth there since then?"

Hillsborough County

Beverly Littlejohn has a serious love affair going with St. Petersburg. How else can you explain her willingness to drive to and from her St. Petersburg home to her job at the Museum of Science and Industry on Fowler Avenue in the teeth of two rush hours a day?

"It probably sounds like a bad drive, but I like Pinellas County and I want to stay there, so I put up with the commute," Littlejohn said.

Leaving her house at 7:30 in the morning, Littlejohn said, she can generally travel the 23 miles to MOSI in 35 minutes.

"Coming home is worse," she said. "Sometimes I'll get off the interstate and take back streets through downtown. ... It probably doesn't save me any time, but at least I'm moving, and it feels like progress."

Everybody's traffic bad boy in Hillsborough County is Malfunction Junction, the confluence of I-4 and I-275. And it's going to get worse as that plate of concrete spaghetti is updated. But at least the upgrades are under way.

North and south of downtown, the road problems are growing, and solutions aren't keeping up.

Traffic in the New Tampa area south of the Pasco County line has gotten so horrific, commuters are going miles out of their way to avoid logjams.

They stream out of Tampa Palms, Hunter's Green, Arbor Green and Heritage Isles for jobs to the south. But instead of fighting traffic on southbound Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Bearss Avenue, they head north into Pasco County, then go east on the new State Road 56 to I-75 and back south. They swear it's faster.

Even so, DOT statistics show that traffic on Bearss has increased by 35 percent in the past 10 years, with a jump of 10 percent forecast for the next five years. Traffic on I-75 north of Bruce B. Downs exploded 121 percent in the past decade. The DOT expects it to grow 20 percent in the next five years.

"We knew that area would get congested, but we didn't know it would happen so fast," Lamb said. "We underestimated growth around Bruce B. Downs. People are finding it easier to go north to come back south. They're saving minutes by expanding miles."

There is some talk about turning Bruce B. Downs into an eight-lane road, but with the growth of northern Hillsborough County, officials might not catch up with the problem for years, if ever.

In southern and eastern Hillsborough, the story is similar. Communities such as Valrico, Ruskin and Lithia used to be regarded as out in the country, beyond exurbia. No more.

"South Hillsborough took everybody off-guard," Lamb said. "Even though there were huge tracts of land out there, nobody expected it to take off."

I-75 south of Brandon has seen a 48 percent increase in traffic in the past 10 years, and it is forecast to grow 13 percent in the next five. Part of that is due to south and east county growth.

North Suncoast

Jill Lemons spends an hour and 20 minutes commuting one way from her home in Spring Hill in Hernando County to her Tampa job as property manager for Hillsborough County schools. But she doesn't mind.

"Where we live is country, and the house has been in my husband's family since it was built," Lemons said. "We have acreage. We have a nice place to live. I go out at night and see stars. The overall environment is wonderful."

Hers is the classic Pasco County commute: a lengthy trip from a sparsely populated agricultural area through the suburbs and into an urban center, then back again. But for Lemons, the time behind the wheel is well spent, in no small part because she does a big chunk of it with her 7-year-old daughter.

"All the way we sing or talk about homework," she said. "It's a good chance to be alone together. It's 40 minutes of real quality time. It isn't nearly as much fun in the summer, when she's not in school."

Lemons' trip on the Suncoast Parkway, State Road 54 and U.S. 41 ends at her daughter's school, but she keeps driving. Onto Bearss over to I-275. She leaves her house at 6:40 a.m. to get to her office at 8.

Lemons' commute takes her through the past and future of development on the North Suncoast, development that could make commuting to and from the three counties much less pleasant.

The Suncoast Parkway didn't exist until 2001. SR 54, once a two-lane byway into agricultural central Pasco, is now jammed with suburban traffic, and will be four lanes from west Pasco to Wesley Chapel by 2004. U.S. 41 traffic has increased by 46 percent in the past 10 years and is expected to grow 15 percent in the next five.

Along Lemons' route, tens of thousands of homes are planned. She won't recognize her commute in five years.

In west Pasco, there are still people around who remember U.S. 19 as a two-lane road. Massive growth along that corridor in the 1970s and '80s in Pasco, and in the 1980s and '90s in Hernando, has put thousands more cars on that road each year.

Now, the growth has shifted inland. Areas such as Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel doubled in size in the 1990s. Areas around the Suncoast Parkway - pastureland now - will be huge developments in the next five years. And as land close to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties is used up, the development will move farther north.

Citrus will become an attractive option if the Suncoast Parkway is extended north from the Hernando line. And as developers move north, commuters seeking less expensive housing will follow.

State officials believe these commuters then will use the parkway because they will be able to afford it.

"There were a lot of questions about building a toll road up there," Lamb said. "People aren't going to give up the free routes immediately, but the growth up there is phenomenal, and the toll road gives people very fast access to jobs in the West Shore area (of Tampa) and around Tampa International Airport."

New housing brings other development that affects traffic.

"Typically, the housing starts as bedroom communities, but very quickly you see schools built, retail and offices open up, and eventually, they become mostly self-sustaining," Lamb said.

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