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High price pinches road plans

The cost of widening County Line Road to four lanes could be $119-million, more than double the original estimate, meaning the project may never happen.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


Of all the major east-west corridors across Pasco and Hernando counties, County Line Road has remained among the least traveled and tended.

At its peak, County Line carries about 1,300 cars and trucks, compared to more than 1,700 on State Road 54. Except for minor portions near the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 19, it has two narrow lanes without shoulders and one traffic light.

It is, in many places, a rural road lined by vacant land, horse farms and mobile homes.

But with the opening of the Suncoast Parkway this month, the area is not likely to stay quiet for long. Several pieces of property sport "for sale" signs. And with ramps on and off the parkway directing traffic to and from Tampa, County Line Road appears poised for development.

"Will that area quickly take on the same characteristics of growth that counties to the south have? Anyone who is a clear thinker would logically think so," said Steve Simon, chairman of the Pasco County Commission and Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Yet long-term plans to widen the road have snagged on the price tag.

Initially, planners estimated that the cost to create a four-lane divided highway with a bike trail, sidewalks and all the amenities from U.S. 41 to U.S. 19 would be about $50-million. After crunching the numbers, however, the Florida Department of Transportation came back with a more sobering figure: $119-million.

Close to 60 percent of the total would go toward buying land.

"There's a considerable amount of concern now," said Chris Kingsley, chairman of the Hernando County Commission and Metropolitan Planning Organization. "It goes from something we were considering pretty solidly to something that may never happen."

Leaders in Hernando and Pasco, which would share the costs 60-40 according to a formula that reflects the share of growth each expects along the road, sent the transportation designers back to their computers to find less extravagant options.

Two ideas emerged. The first is a more typical suburban highway with 50 mph limits; the second would be a more narrow, urban model with a 45 mph limit. Both would allow for expansion up to six lanes with bike lanes, but no separate trail.

Cost projections for these models will not be available until late March, said Marion Pscion, a Transportation Department spokeswoman. The department then will have public hearings on the alternatives in the summer.

Pscion stressed that the sticker shock over the original design does not mean that the project is dead, although the "no-build" choice remains an option. Project planning often takes seven to 10 years before construction begins, she said.

Even if the County Line Road initiative proceeded without bumps, only the portions from Cobblestone Road west and from the Suncoast Parkway east would take place in the first 10 years.

The middle part would not occur for up to 20 years.

"You're at the front end of this project," Pscion said.

The information that comes from the state will help both county commissions choose which road projects to pursue, Kingsley and Simon agreed. An MPO's long-range plan must be based on true cost estimates, noted Dennis Dix, Hernando County transportation planning coordinator.

Many counties have removed projects from their lists because of rising costs and limited money, Dix said.

"Everything is going up," Simon said. "We'll have to see how the DOT does it and then bring it back for prioritizing."

"It moves down in priority with our ability to pay for it," Kingsley said.

With such important details still unresolved, requests to the state Legislature for $34-million toward the expansion are unlikely to win approval this year, said state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville.

"I am trying to put more money into planning a few years out," said Russell, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

He held out more hope for winning $1.9-million for an extension of Ayers Road in Hernando County from U.S. 41 to a point near the Suncoast Parkway, also a portion of the County Line Road project. That effort to remove some of the truck traffic from County Line could get money sooner because it incorporates air, rail and road traffic by connecting to the Hernando County Airport.

Russell said he would do what he could to keep the larger project on track, too.

"There's definitely a need in the Spring Hill sector between Mariner and U.S. 19, and also between Mariner and the Suncoast," he said. "Models show (the road) will meet capacity. It's prudent that we prepare for the future now, before we reach gridlock."

That level of traffic may not come for 20 years, according to projections by both counties. But, Simon said, "It would be nice to be ahead of the curve."

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