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Residents blamed the contractors working on County Road 54, but the county engineer says it was his fault.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP, Times Staff Writer
Published January 16, 2008
WESLEY CHAPEL - Jim O'Neill wanted some answers.
He called the road work on County Road 54 "a fiasco." He wanted to know when the widening project was supposed to have been completed, and why his way home is still awash in orange cones and ragged pavement.
"What were the penalties assessed?" he asked. "Who in your office is responsible for following up with the contractors?"
Behind him, more than 200 people on Monday packed a church in Wesley Chapel where county officials were holding a mea culpa session on delays in the CR 54 project. Among them were county commissioners, top Pasco staff, developers and state planners.
But the face of Pasco officialdom Monday night belonged to county engineer Jim Widman.
He took ownership of the problem that had produced two years of ripped-up roads and a lot of angry commuters.
Not the contractors' fault, he said.
"Had he no distractions or add-ons thrown on him by me, he would have been done by November," Widman said. "I stopped him from completing his work."
Widman said he ordered 800 feet of work on Old Pasco Road added to the 2-mile project. He acknowledged "miscommunication," when county officials didn't realize that road plans presented by developers for the nearby Grove at Wesley Chapel mall didn't include a left turn lane from Old Pasco Road into the shopping center.
The CR 54 project was supposed to end in November. Then it was March. Now it's April 27.
"That's when we'll have substantial completion, which means that if you drive down the road, you'll think it's finished," Widman said.
There's still quite a bit to do on Old Pasco Road, which affects the abutting CR 54: move underground utilities, guardrails, telephone poles, paving, striping. Widman promised better communication: more press releases, more updates on www.pascocountyfl.net.
There were those who came out to praise county engineers for their effort, but mostly, Monday was a night to vent. The biggest rounds of applause went to those who touched the chord of local anger.
"Why do we approve all these big projects with no roads?" asked neighbor Carolyn Lodge.
After the clapping died down, Widman tried to explain "concurrency," meaning the state rules that require developments to prove that they have enough roads to handle the increased traffic. Along the way, he gave a glimpse into concurrency's flaws.
"In reality, we're still building a road they get to assume is completed," he said.
These Wesley Chapel residents live in a confluence of developments. Their lifeline - CR 54 - is a mess of construction dust. They have small-town roads struggling with big-town growth. They start and end each work day on the borderline of road rage.
South of CR 54, work is about to start in the spring on widening Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to six lanes. That will take 18 months.
Bids on the extension of State Road 56 were supposed to go out Friday. That extension project would help take some pressure off this neighborhood, but it's faced delays too.
State Road 54, from Bruce B. Downs to Curley Road, is supposed to be widened, starting in winter 2009. Neighbors can't wait. The county has grappled with the job for six years, and most of the work so far has been confined to letters, drawings and debates in planners' boardrooms.
"The new Cypress Creek Town Center mall is going up," said neighbor Bob Hrabak, referring to a giant mall going up at the southern end of CR 54. "What's going to happen when their trucks start going in and out?"
Applause. Widman said the developer is supposed to widen SR 54 to the south. He believed it would be an easier job than CR 54 since there would be "no underground utility problem."
State officials presented a slide show, listing all the changes they expected to see happen on SR 54 and Interstate 75. Most of the plans to widen and improve the Wesley Chapel stretch of the interstate are unfunded, which means the state Department of Transportation can't pay for it yet.
But much of the design work has been done, state officials said.
That prompted Norbert Dettlaff to speak up from his seat. "How do you drive on a design?" he snapped.
Many things were on the horizon, but just not here yet.
The interchange under CR 54 and I-75 is due to get six lanes, adding one through lane in each direction. Work starts in 2009.
Studies are being done to examine adding interstate exits to Overpass Road, Widman said. But "we have to look at how it's going be paid for," he said.
The southern section of CR 54 will be widened by the developers of Wiregrass Ranch. When? 2012.
"I know you're upset, and I agree with you," said County Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who represents this area.
Two hours after the session began, residents began drifting out. Some were satisfied. Some wanted more answers. Some were just hungry. They drove home slowly on the ragged pavement, through the orange cones.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 909-4613.
[Last modified January 15, 2008, 23:25:04]