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Road to future has bumps


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001

It was 'round midnight. Pitch black. And it was odd that, as I pressed harder on the accelerator, the speedometer limped past 55, 45, 35, then zero.

If it weren't for cell phones and AAA, getting stranded on a deserted highway in the middle of the night might cause me to panic. But the auto club had rescued me from many breakdowns over the years.

I told the dispatcher I was northbound on the Suncoast Parkway, just a mile south of the State Road 52 exit.

There is no such place in Hudson, Florida, she replied.

"Okay," I said, "so I'm not sure it's in Hudson, but it's the Suncoast Parkway."


"You know," I continued, "the big toll road that opened up a few weeks ago?"

"Uhhhh . . . "

"It's kind of like a northbound extension of the Veterans Expressway?"

She vowed to find where I was, if there was such a place, and to send help. But by about 1:45 a.m., neither a tow truck nor a Florida Highway Patrol trooper was in sight.

I was stuck on the road to the Nature Coast's future.

Countless investors, real estate developers and builders have bet that the $507.5-million parkway is the region's path to prosperity. But not everyone has gotten the word.

Some maps, for instance, won't be updated for up to a year -- although updated ones are available at parkway toll booths.

Parkway public information officer Joanne Hurley says she fields 15 to 20 questions a day on the road. One man asked if he could get to Disney World on it -- from Sarasota. Hurley expects it's going to be months before the confusion ebbs.

"There's a varying level of interest during the construction, and generally a large education process has to occur," Hurley said.

"Most of the road projects involve adding lanes or improving existing roads, things that people can see when they drive every day.

"But when people have never seen the territory that they're going through, it's different."

A profusely apologetic AAA spokesman later explained that while there was a bit of "initial confusion" on the part of the dispatcher, the delay (the tow truck didn't arrive until after 2 a.m.) in getting to me was not that his agency is unaware of the parkway's location. Rather, he said, there were problems reaching one of the emergency road services with whom AAA contracts.

And where was the Florida Highway Patrol in my hours of need? An apologetic Lt. Harold Frear said his agency just doesn't "have enough people to cover every road in our jurisdiction all the time."

Troopers are assigned zones, and when they're not on an assigned call, their time is devoted to patrol. More than likely, the one trooper who was assigned to that zone at that time was probably going from wreck to wreck. The office on State Road 52 is administrative, and it's not open at night.

He suggested that next time I need roadside assistance, I dial *FHP -- a free call that doesn't even count against cell phone minutes. It's not just for matters of life and death.

"We may not be able to dispatch a trooper to sit with you, but we can certainly do our best to try to help," Frear said. "It doesn't have to be an emergency to call."

Phones along the parkway for motorist aid won't be installed until the spring.

From my most recent roadside breakdown, I emerged a little more enlightened about the work still to be done on this long-awaited road.

I also got plenty of time to practice pronouncing Pithlachascotee as my hazard lights blinked on and off the sign marking the river crossing -- and plenty of friendly reminders from my colleagues that "E stands for empty."

- Jennifer Goldblatt covers business news for the Pasco Times.

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