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By C.T. BOWEN, Editor of Editorials
Published December 9, 2007
It is becoming a regular holiday tradition. Each December, the state Department of Transportation tells Pasco County what it won't be receiving.
Nothing about being naughty or nice. In fact, the county is incredibly nice by sharing locally collected impact fees and Penny for Pasco sales tax dollars with the Florida DOT to improve state highways.
The expectations have become so low that people are giddy when things aren't delayed even longer. The DOT was all smiles about not pushing back the construction of a wider U.S. 41 through Land O' Lakes as it has done twice previously since 2001.
You can't blame the road guys, though, for the seasonal lumps of coal. The cost of building a road simply exceeds the amount of money available.
Over the years, the state fingered high rights-of-way costs and burgeoning construction pricing for its shortfalls. This year, DOT had to trim $1.4-billion from planned transportation projects statewide because less gasoline tax dollars are rolling to the till. The high price of fuel means people are traveling less, relying more on mass transit and swapping their gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Who knew that trying to be thrifty, energy-efficient, environmentally conscious would be a bad thing?
Three days ago, the state previewed its tentative five-year transportation program for Pasco County to the Metropolitan Planning Organization (elected county commissioners and representatives from the county's four largest cities). There is $400-million worth of stuff coming beginning in summer 2008, about two-thirds of the dollars are being spent on actual road construction. The rest will buy land, design work and pay for mass transit. That is, if nothing changes. It is called tentative, after all.
You get your own chance to comment on the plan at a public hearing 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the West Pasco Government Center off Little Road.
You might hear the DOT word of the day, "defer." As in, "We didn't delete any projects, but we did defer some."
Buying right of way got deferred all over the place: for a wider Interstate 75 north of State Road 52; for the SR 52 corridor from the Suncoast Parkway east to Interstate 75; for U.S. 301 from State Road 39 to south of County Road 54 and the much-anticipated continuous right-turn lane on U.S. 19.
Delaying the land purchasing means construction won't start as soon as anticipated, even though the actual building of these roads is not in the five-year plan, tentative or otherwise.
There is, however, $25-million to start construction of the right-turn lane on U.S. 19 sometime after July 1, 2010. The state delayed for three years acquiring right of way for the second phase.
"Hopefully, the year 2012 will be a good year," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand deadpanned afterward. "We were supposed to have this all done by 2008-09."
The push to make U.S. 19 safer started in earnest after 38 people died there in traffic accidents in 2001, double the annual average over the previous seven years. A task force convened and improvements followed including more lighting, large street address signs, sidewalks and computerized traffic management systems. Still, the road remains the county's most deadly. Eighteen people died in U.S. 19 motor vehicle accidents in 2006, the only road in Pasco County to reach double-digit fatalities.
The most costly improvements - additional right-hand turn lanes, one in each direction of the 19-mile highway, and using Penny for Pasco dollars for channelization of the road median - have yet to begin.
Across the county, much of the focus is on the still-in-the-planning widening of State Road 54 from Curley Road in Wesley Chapel west to Morris Bridge Road outside Zephyrhills. It is a $100-million project that is years away. The most common comments at a recent public workshop were "When do you start?" And, "Can you do it sooner than later?"
The five-year work plan includes $8-million to start buying the right of way in 2013, but that won't come close to covering the land costs, which are projected at $34-million to $50-million. Money for construction is nowhere in sight.
"I beg you to move it forward. It should have been done a long time ago," said Zephyrhills Mayor Cliff McDuffie who also didn't swallow the rationalizations for the dreary pace of road-building.
"I don't understand government's thinking on that."
His frustration is understandable.
Just more stress to accompany the December holidays.
[Last modified December 8, 2007, 20:25:20]