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Entrance road? Yes. Lanes? Wait

LUTZ-Lutz-Lake Fern Road will get a bigger intersection with lights, but widening it before a new school opens doesn't look likely.

By BILL COATS
Published May 4, 2007


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Engineers have decided how authorities will spiff up Lutz-Lake Fern Road in time for the opening of a new high school in two years.

The school system will build an entrance road to serve the high school and two existing schools next door. Its intersection will be enlarged, with signal lights and multiple turn lanes. With a nod to bicyclists, the county will fill a gap in Lutz-Lake Fern's paved shoulders. It will connect several sidewalks.

What Hillsborough County cannot do is add more lanes - yet.

"If we had the money in the bank right now, we couldn't spend it, " said Edd Arnold, Hillsborough County's project manager on the upgrades.

The challenge is buying, and possibly condemning, private land, which adds years to a project's preparation.

"Every project, we've run into the same pothole, " Arnold said. "That's the property we have to acquire to support the project."

Arnold and other county officials do plan to widen Lutz-Lake Fern between the Suncoast Parkway and N Dale Mabry Highway. They hope county commissioners will earmark $40-million to $70-million within a year to four-lane the road.

That, said Arnold, would allow the county to begin the widening the summer of 2009, just as the high school prepares to open. It would be completed by 2012, he said.

The county already owns generous space alongside Lutz-Lake Fern, sufficient for the new lanes. But it doesn't own land required for drainage areas and to mitigate the destruction of natural swamps. That adds up to nearly 35 acres along Lutz-Lake Fern, which knifes across Rocky/Brushy Creek and a chain of swamps, Arnold said.

Arnold said the county already has begun shopping for nearly 3 acres that will become a retention area for the expanded intersection. Because the county has budgeted $14-million for Lutz-Lake Fern already, officials also will begin looking for land for the eventual widening, Arnold said.

The high school is scheduled to open in August of 2009. David Borisenko, the Hillsborough County School District's manager of planning and facilities siting, said he expects contractors will break ground in six to eight months.

The two timetables present a bleak picture. The high school will open on a road that is officially failing under today's traffic, just as work crews begin clearing the roadsides for new lanes.

But it could be worse.

The throngs of cars that give Lutz-Lake Fern its failing grades primarily head east during the critical morning rush hour. The worst backups are near Sunlake Boulevard, more than 2 miles east of the school campuses.

In contrast, the bulk of the school traffic will head west, passing most morning commuters in the opposite lane.

That traffic pattern could change if the state adds an interchange to the Suncoast next to the high school. Executives of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise have recommended it, but it cannot happen until the Florida Legislature frees up the financing.

An interchange, which could be built several years sooner than Lutz-Lake Fern will be widened, could lure most of the area's Tampa-bound commuters into the same flow as school traffic.

The schools' entrance, meanwhile, will lead to the closing of McKitrick Elementary School's current entrance on Lutz-Lake Fern, and move it to the west side of the campus. Borisenko said the schools' combined entrance road will approach Lutz-Lake Fern with a right-turn lane and dual left-turn lanes.

He said the school system, which is being required to install new traffic signals at the intersection, also will contribute $600, 000 to $700, 000 to the $3-million intersection construction.

Borisenko admitted that school officials would like to have seen Lutz-Lake Fern widened in time for high school classes in 2009, but he doesn't fault the county government.

"We really don't have any criticism of the county in terms of the effort to improve Lutz-Lake Fern, " Borisenko said. "I think they're making a good effort."

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

[Last modified May 3, 2007, 06:51:11]


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