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Talk of east-west road revs up again

In the 1980s, the idea hit a dead end. Now, many Lutz residents tired of traffic and speeders welcome the plan.

By BILL COATS
Published July 30, 2006


LUTZ - In its 95-year history, Lutz has opposed many things, but none like the infamous East-West Road of the 1980s. Lutz had a campaign song, a music video, hundreds of protesters and thousands of red and white bumper stickers.

Tampa Bay's leadership was heavily behind plans to build a perimeter expressway around Tampa, including the Veterans Expressway and Interstate 75. But the raucous opposition, and a timely power play in Tallahassee, stopped the expressway at N Dale Mabry Highway.

No politician has dared raise the topic since.

But lately, drivers have. By the thousands, they are weaving east and west through Lutz's older, two-lane roads. They're impatient for something better.

Many, including Lutz residents, spoke up for a new east-west road earlier this year in a series of hearings on speeding problems.

"That would definitely relieve Lutz and these roads that were built 70 years ago," says one, Bruce Boyer, who has lived in Lutz 30 years.

Boyer was one of the protesters in the 1980s. But he has changed his mind as 8,000 cars each weekday tear along Crenshaw Lake Road past his neighborhood.

"The east-west traffic, where people are passing through Lutz, we're not going to stop that," Boyer says.

Notably, Mary Figg also is voicing regret. As a member of the Florida House from Lutz through the 1980s, Figg gained huge influence over the state's transportation budget. Then she dropped a final ax on the East-West Road.

That move, she says now, "was shortsighted, you know? It was parochial."

The loudest clamor for a new east-west road may be just over the horizon, because the drive through Lutz that many have become accustomed to may soon be even more aggravating.

Hillsborough County ended its traffic hearings in May by authorizing several Lutz neighborhoods to petition for speed tables on their roads. Activists along Crenshaw Lake already have turned in the necessary signatures. Construction money waits. If county commissioners approve, four speed tables and four speed cushions could be installed next year on the road, a favorite choice of east-west commuters.

Boyer was one of the few neighbors who refused to sign the petitions. He thinks the speed tables will "patch" a problem that needs a larger cure.

"It's just going to irritate everybody," Boyer says.

Dodging water

Mother Nature long ago decreed that it would be tough to find a straight east-west route through northern Hillsborough County.

She created the county's biggest chain of lakes through Keystone and the second biggest through Lutz and Carrollwood. She made their waters migrate from north to south, toward Tampa Bay.

Lakes block roads. W Fowler Avenue ends just east of Lake Eckles. W Fletcher Avenue bends between Lake George and Lake Ellen. Van Dyke Road has bookends: Lake Keystone on the west and Lake Brant on the east.

Lutz is named, in part, for the man who was audacious enough in 1909 to carve out the community's longest east-west transportation corridor. The railroad that Charles Lutz built laid a rough path for Lutz-Lake Fern Road. But it veered around so many lakes and swamps that locals nicknamed it the "Pea Vine Railroad."

By 1980, road planners were dodging neighborhoods as well as water, and the neighborhoods fought back. The battle over an east-west road raged for years.

A meeting in 1988 attracted 550 citizens, mostly opposing the project. They were so rowdy the chairman repeatedly threatened to adjourn. Some carried a flag-draped coffin representing "The American Neighborhood."

Road planners nevertheless gave the East-West Road top priority.

But Figg was watching. First elected to the House in 1982, she was appointed in 1988 to lead the transportation subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. So Figg, more than any of the other 119 House members, shaped the budget of the Florida Transportation Department. And the East-West Road, more than any issue she ever had encountered, enraged her constituents.

Figg instructed the department to kill it.

"Even though it's parochial, people have a right to what they want," Figg says. "They have a right to ask their legislator to do what they want."

But, "It was not the best thought-out decision," she says.

Why?

"We don't have any good east-west roads in Hillsborough County."

East-West slowdown

In 1991, around the time Figg blocked the East-West Road, Lea May and her family moved from New York to Crenshaw Lake Road.

"The Realtor told us, 'Don't say East-West Road in Lutz,' "May recalls.

Now, 17 years later, May says half her neighbors want just such a road. May met most of them this spring as she and several allies obtained more than 160 signatures in favor of speed tables on Crenshaw Lake.

Along with Van Dyke, Crenshaw Lake has received much of the traffic the East-West Road was meant to carry.

"I don't care if they do use this as the East-West Road, as long as they slow traffic down to the speed limit," May says.

Next month, the petitions are likely to trigger a routine vote of the County Commission to build the tables, says Buz Barbour, a manager for the county's traffic-control efforts. It would be on the noncontroversial "consent agenda," with no discussion planned. Construction would follow within six months, Barbour says.

Then, a project that was debated entirely within Lutz would be imposed on drivers from outside Lutz. The speed tables would slow down commuters between Keystone and the University of South Florida area, between New Tampa and the Van Dyke area.

Four speed tables and four speed cushions would be built. The devices are 3.5 inches tall and 10 feet across, with 6-foot ramps. Tables span the roadway from shoulder to shoulder. Cushions do most of that, but leave gaps spaced for emergency vehicles to pass without slowing. A driver would encounter a cushion then a table as he approached each of Crenshaw Lake's two S-curves, and a table, then cushions leaving each curve.

The recommended speed for crossing the devices is 20 mph. Elsewhere, the road's speed limit would drop to 30 from 35.

Spunky idea

Two years ago, another option surfaced, like a spunky weed sprouting from asphalt. Long-range planners with Hillsborough County suggested that Lutz consider an eastward extension of Van Dyke Road to U.S. 41. That would create a modest East-West Road, at least from Gunn Highway to six-lane U.S. 41.

The extension would have required the county to buy and raze several homes, or build bridges over major swamps. Neighbors rallied in protest. The county quickly shelved the idea.

"Occasionally, we'll get a phone call," says Ned Baier, Hillsborough County's transportation planning manager. "They'll ask, 'Have you ever looked at a connection between the Suncoast Parkway and I-275?' Or, "Why does the Veterans Expressway end at Dale Mabry?' "

Beyond the history lessons, Baier's answer for the time being is, "The county's not looking to add projects that are unpopular, and that we don't have money for."

"The community will not unite on that subject," says Denise Layne, past president of the Lutz Civic Association, and moderator of the Lutz Transportation Task Force.

"I don't think it's going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years," she says. "If the will is there, it might be cut to 10, and I don't think the will is there."

Now, says Figg, "It's a little bit late to be talking about an east-west road through Lutz."

Bill Coats can be reached at coats@sptimes.com or 813 269-5309.

[Last modified July 30, 2006, 01:37:36]


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