While many improvements already are in place, the county hopes to do even more to improve safety.
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published February 15, 2004
NEW PORT RICHEY - The county's 19.7-mile stretch of U.S. 19 has been getting a much-needed makeover.
New signs, an improved traffic signal system, an extra turn lane and the proposed U.S. 19 concurrency ordinance are all in the works - all in an attempt to make the hectic highway a safer, smoother ride.
"The reason U.S. 19 has gotten so much attention recently is because it is the main street in west Pasco County, and everybody has got to go to that road to do any kind of business," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, chairwoman of the U.S. 19 Task Force, a group of city, county and state officials who examined safety problems on the highway.
"One of the things, too, is the fact of its not-so-good track record," she continued. "We've had a lot of fatalities, predominantly pedestrians. It's always had a lot of accidents. You don't see that as often on (State Road) 52 or (State Road) 54."
The task force found that 1 out of every 5 accidents and 1 out of 3 crash-related fatalities in Pasco County occurs on U.S. 19. Fourteen people died on the Pasco stretch of the highway in 2003.
So far the fixes for the highway include:
*Bright blue signs, posted last December every quarter-mile along U.S. 19, provide the block numbers so drivers can more easily find their destinations.
*A more sophisticated traffic signal timing system has been installed from the Pasco-Pinellas county line to Main Street, although the equipment is not yet activated. It should be running in the next few months, adjusting the green time at traffic signals to respond to actual traffic conditions.
Similar equipment, including sensors in the pavement and video cameras at certain intersections, will be installed from Main Street to the Pasco-Hernando county line within the next two years.
*Plans to add a fourth continuous turn lane in each direction of U.S. 19 got local officials' approval in December. Now they need to find the funding for the $15-million project, and they hope to get state and federal officials to pick up the tab. Hildebrand has been lobbying state legislators for the dollars.
*The county also plans to build "channelized medians" along U.S. 19 that allow turns only in a single direction, eliminating the danger of cars converging on a median opening from several spots. That $13.3-million project hinges on the passage of the Penny for Pasco sales tax hike coming before voters March 9.
While drivers have greeted those improvements with open arms, the proposed U.S. 19 concurrency ordinance has drawn criticism from builders and growth-conscious residents alike.
The measure would require developers to help improve U.S. 19 to handle the extra traffic their projects would bring. They could make the road improvements themselves - by adding a turn lane or a traffic signal, for instance - or they could chip into a county fund for fixing up U.S. 19 trouble spots.
Developers complain the measure sticks them with the tab for fixing a highway that has deteriorated over decades. Some residents, wary of the Wal-Mart Supercenter proposed near Beacon Woods, fear the measure isn't strong enough if it won't stop a big box store from pouring more traffic on U.S. 19.
"We need to improve the capacity and safety on U.S. 19 before we further degrade it," said Carl Spoeth, a member of the Pasco Citizens for Growth Management. "I'm not antigrowth. I'm just for controlled growth, and U.S. 19 is a unique problem."
The Citizens Ordinance Review Committee is studying the measure, which will eventually go to the County Commission for a vote. The ordinance would not affect the 7 miles of U.S. 19 that fall within the city limits of Port Richey and New Port Richey, unless those cities adopt similar measures.