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By JIM ROSS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001
HOMOSASSA SPRINGS -- Henry "Hootie" Wilkins has great timing -- in more ways than one.
In late January, Wilkins and his family opened American Airport Express, a limo service. Then, on Feb. 4, the state unveiled a portion of the new Suncoast Parkway, which runs through Hernando and Pasco counties and links with the Veterans Expressway, which goes past Tampa International.
Wilkins, a one-time candidate for Citrus County sheriff, has made the trip between Citrus and the airport countless times. It was in his professional interest to test the parkway on opening day.
"It was absolutely great," he said. "I couldn't believe the time savings. It cut 22 minutes off my regular time. It's kind of fortuitous for us that this is opening up. Plus, we can pass on the savings to our clients."
Citrus drivers will see for themselves what kind of help, if any, the parkway provides for their journeys south. The answer obviously depends on where the motorist is coming from, where he or she is going and how much money (the parkway is a toll road) the driver is willing to pay.
The answer might change this summer. Right now, the parkway is open only to State Road 50 in Hernando County. Later this year, the full stretch to U.S. 98 at the Citrus border will be ready. The state still hasn't decided whether it will build a Citrus extension.
Wilkins lives off Grover Cleveland Boulevard. Count him among the parkway converts.
On Feb. 4, a Sunday, Wilkins left the airport at 2 p.m. Traffic was fine. He drove south on the expressway, which links with the parkway and ended at SR 50 in Hernando. He found his way to County Road 491 and headed north.
He was home by 3:10 p.m.
"It's definitely a savings," Wilkins said.
Last week, this Times reporter conducted an unscientific experiment. At 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday, I sat in my car at U.S. 19 and County Road 490A (Halls River Road) in Homosassa Springs, started my stopwatch and set out to test the parkway.
Everyone has their favorite routes and shortcuts. To keep things simple, and provide a useful yardstick for all Citrus drivers, I chose a fairly simple path to a fairly common destination: Tampa International.
I drove south on U.S. 19 to U.S. 98 and turned left, or east. Then I turned south onto County Road 491. (At this point, I was in Hernando County, but the road at that stage has the same number in Hernando as it does in Citrus.)
The trip between Hardee's and CR 491 was easy. It took 15 minutes to travel 15 miles. The going was just as easy on CR 491, although the road is narrow and winding; some people might not want to drive it alone at night for fear of being stranded with a flat tire.
County Road 491 bottoms out 8 miles south of U.S. 98. I turned right and the road, now known as Fort Dade Avenue or Hernando County Road 484, continued south for a mile or so before it reached SR 50.
(If you take this route on the trip back from the airport, watch out: The road signs on SR 50 for CR 484/Fort Dade are easy to miss.)
I turned right onto SR 50 and drove another mile to the parkway entrance. At this point, I had driven 25 miles and had been in the car about 30 minutes.
From there, it was relatively smooth sailing to Tampa International. I just kept heading south and following the airport signs, which I wish were more prominently displayed.
Drive time: 1 hour and 19 minutes. It would have cost $3.50 in tolls; however, the parkway toll booths were not open yet, so I only paid $1.25 in tolls on the Veterans Expressway.
On another weekday, I started at the Hardee's again but this time decided to drive an old-fashioned route: I took U.S. 19 to U.S. 98, turned east toward Brooksville, took the truck bypass around town and then turned south onto U.S. 41.
From there, I followed signs for the expressway and picked up that throughway just past State Road 54 in Pasco County.
I drove at night, and traffic was predictably light. That certainly would not be the case during daytime hours.
Still, even with the advantage of clear roads, the drive time was 1 hour and 30 minutes. I didn't have to pay tolls, but the drive was lousy: too many two-lane roads and too much road construction. I was glad I drove this leg at night.
I did not try a third route, which would be to follow the U.S. 98 bypass all the way to Interstate 75, then head south to Tampa.
However, I used this route for my return trip the day I drove the parkway to the airport. The trip was fairly smooth, until I had the misfortune of finding my way behind a slow-moving convoy of recreational vehicles at the U.S. 98 truck route.
Tired of standing still and worrying about missing an afternoon appointment, I called off the mission after 1 hour and 5 minutes. At that rate, it would have taken a good 25 minutes more to have reached U.S. 19 and Halls River Road.