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Is beltway really what our region needs?

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published August 11, 2006


When I first looked at the Expressway Authority's proposal to build a beltway running from Apollo Beach to parts of North Pinellas and West Pasco, a thought immediately popped into my head:

It's going to be a lot easier for our Greek friends in Valrico to get to Tarpon Springs.

I don't mean to completely ridicule the toll road, because it has some value in our fast-growing area, and it certainly has the potential to be a boon to the region. From a provincial perspective, however, the idea makes me scratch my head.

After all, are there a bunch of people in Apollo Beach clamoring for a faster way to get to Plant City? Are Ruskin residents getting revved up about a shorter drive to New Port Richey? Are the folks in FishHawk jumping for joy over easier access to San Antonio?

The County Commission, which gave initial approval to it last week, sees it as an answer to our transportation woes and a visionary approach to dealing with existing growth in eastern Hillsborough.

Opponents chide the project because they believe it will urbanize one of the county's last rural areas and go against long-term land use plans.

Me? I'm just looking for a faster way to get from the mall to Mulrennan Middle to pick up my kids.

I would feel so much better if the proposal was about widening Lumsden Road between Lithia-Pinecrest and Miller Road. Or widening Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between Highland Avenue and Kingsway Avenue. Or improving the flow on State Road 60 between Kings Avenue and Kingsway/Bryan Road.

Alas, the county and the state are too strapped to finance such projects, and the toll road would pay for itself over a course of 10 years. So do we build the beltway solely because it can be financed? I don't know.

The most difficult drives in our area are east-west, not north-south. Even with the new elevated Crosstown Expressway, which I love, the biggest commuting challenge remains going from here to Tampa, whether you're coming out of FishHawk, Valrico or Seffner.

Yet the beltway proposal is a north-south road, curving out from northern Manatee County, running through Apollo Beach/Ruskin and then skirting east near FishHawk. It would continue between Seffner and Plant City before curving back into Pasco and connecting with Interstate 75. From there, it splits into two east-west arteries, one ending in Pasco and the other ending in far northern Pinellas.

Beltway supporters would have you believe the road will help with those traffic concerns because morning commuters will pay the toll and drive east to go west. Yes, they envision FishHawk and Valrico residents jumping on the road, taking an arc toward Plant City and then coming back west on I-4.

That's a stretch, pun intended.

I believe most folks will still want to find their way to the Crosstown and then cruise into the city, even if it means wading through traffic on Bloomingdale Avenue or Boyette Road or SR 60.

The road, however, could siphon some traffic away from Lithia-Pinecrest. You can't overlook that given the Lake Hutto development, if approved by the county, likely will drop 3,500 homes into the already burgeoning Lithia area.

You have to ask, however, what's the tradeoff? This community prides itself on retaining some of its rural charm even with all the growth. Look at FishHawk. Yes, there are a lot of houses where woods once stood, but the development still has a sense of seclusion and a touch of nature. Commuting to and from the subdivision is a challenge, but once you get there, you feel like you're out in the country.

Will that still exists with this toll road cutting a wide swath into our green space?

Sure, growth is coming to the area and a lot of our strawberry fields and orange groves already have been plowed under for new neighborhoods. This road has the potential, however, to open up our last rural vestiges like a bottle opener - possibly spurring growth in western Polk County and making those east-west arteries even more difficult to traverse.

With all that being said, the proposal is not totally without merit.

From a regional perspective, it can be argued that because the toll road requires the approval of five counties, it could be the first step toward building the kind of regional cooperation we need for long-term transportation plans.

It also would allow traffic to flow faster through the region, alleviate some congestion on Interstate 75 and make Tampa Bay more attractive to businesses.

The best aspect of the proposal is this: We've only just begun. There are all kinds of studies that need to be done, and plenty of time for residents to voice their opinions.

Perhaps, if the beltway had limited access with only a few exits Lithia-Pinecrest, SR 60, I-4, its impact on growth can be minimized while actually helping with traffic.

However, the Expressway Authority and the County Commission need to be challenged at every turn.

You have to ferret out the possibilities of this road being solely about sweetening the pockets of landowners and bolstering such proposals as Commissioner Jim Norman's misguided $40-million youth sports complex which, not so surprisingly, is planned for an area near the northern end of this toll road.

If you the people want a road that's about enhancing your existing lives and not altering them for the worse, you have to make your voice heard early and often.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 10, 2006, 09:01:49]


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