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Road work bypassed 20 years for expensive project

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It’s not a laughing matter when a vital road project gets waylaid 20 years due to a lack of cash.  A major roadblock to four-laning County Line Road is the $82.8 million price tag for right-of-way acquisitions alone and naturally, who will pay for what.  Pasco and Hernando Counties have not been able to agree on a plan to pay for the project, a common problem for county line roads across the Sunshine State.

Just ask Hernando County BOCC Chairman John Allocco. “County Line Road has been a major, major problem and priority for Hernando County for years,” he said. “Every year it comes up, but we need help paying for it from Pasco County. It’s a major concern of safety, transportation and development in this area…sort of a red-headed stepchild.”

Fellow Commissioner Jeff Holcomb agreed with Allocco’s assessment. “It’s been an issue here for many, many years. It’s a safety issue,” he said. He said the normal process would be for both counties to share the cost, but the Florida Department of Transportation could fund the work if special circumstances arise.

“There are a number of county line roads shared by two governments in Florida no one wants to fix,” Pasco Project Manager Sam Beneck said. “This one definitely has stepchild status.”

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Designated as County Road 578, County Line Road is legally owned and maintained by Hernando and Pasco counties. The highway runs 10.8 miles from U.S. 19 to U.S. 41 straight as an arrow along the Pasco-Hernando border.

Only about 20 percent of the road has been four-laned with shoulders and sidewalks. The greatest portions are undivided two-lane, rutted highway with crumbling edges and patched-together sections clogged bumper-to-bumper during high-speed, rush-hour traffic.

A commuter’s nightmare.

Allocco noted Hernando County is paying for the first of three major improvements to the road, the Ayers Road Extension. The extension will create a new four-lane highway with an 11-foot-wide multi-use path from the County Line-Suncoast Parkway intersection northeast two miles before turning due east 1 mile to intersect with 41 at the Ayers Road junction.

The alignment takes the new highway west and north of Masaryktown’s primary development, which is along 41 north of the County Line junction; officials noted the new road serves hundreds of homes in the upper-middle class Trillium subdivision, including construction of two traffic lights.

The good news is the $39 million project is running within the budget and ahead of schedule. That’s $20.2 million for construction, $14.8 million to acquire right-of-way and $4 million for design. “It’s been a great project so far. We haven’t had a lot of problems with the construction, and only $150,000 in costs for little things has been added by the builder,” project spokesman John McShaffrey said. “It’s actually ahead of scheduled completion, which is the summer of 2022.”

“We paid for it as an improvement that will help us develop some of our areas,” Allocco explained.

Untying the knot

The bad news?

Even though they’ve been on the drawing board for more than 20 years, two remaining projects for 578 remain delayed indefinitely while Hernando officials search for ways to fund the jobs. According to Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson, these projects will be funded according to their priority set by the Metropolitan Planning Organizations for Pasco and Hernando counties. “This project is priority 20 for the Pasco MPO and is not on the list for the Hernando/Citrus MPO. Based on these priorities, these projects are not expected to be funded in the foreseeable future,” she stated, adding they’ve been placed “on hold since 2009.”

The two remaining projects are:

  •  East Road to Springtime Street: Construction of this 2.7-mile project has not been funded, but the right-of-way acquisition will hit $51 million and the design cost is estimated at $2.3 million. The work will include four-laning and dividing the two-lane stretch with a median, along with a 5-foot-wide sidewalk on the north side of the road, a 12-foot-wide, shared-use path paved on the south side, 5 feet of paved shoulders and extensive drainage systems.
  •    Mariner Boulevard to Suncoast Parkway: This project remains unfunded, but the right-of-way along this 3-mile section will cost roughly $31.8 million. Design costs are set at $2.8 million. This project will include nearly identical improvements as the East Road to Springtime Street phase from a half-mile east of Mariner Boulevard to just west of the Suncoast Parkway.

Allocco said officials have discussed the funding problem at the joint Hernando/Citrus MPO meetings “for years,” but there is nothing Hernando leaders can afford to do without Pasco paying for half the work as 50 percent owner of the road.

“It’s a major thoroughfare that for years Hernando County says is a priority, but Pasco County has shown no interest in improving it,” the commissioner said. “We require matching money from them, but they won’t help.”

Allocco explained that an improved CR 578 would help officials develop areas on both sides of the highway, another mutual benefit and reason to share the cost. He said Pasco officials would rather fix roads around Wesley Chapel and Interstate 75 to funnel money from Hillsborough County north into central Pasco than stimulate growth on the south side of CR 578.

And he is adamant: “I will not approve use of Hernando funds to help develop Pasco County properties.”

They’ve come close. In addition to paying the full cost of the Ayers Road Extension, Hernando County picked up the tab on the completed four-laning of two miles of CR 578 from U.S. 19 to East Road.

In Pasco, County Commissioner Jack Mariano represents District 5 including County Line Road, so he drives on CR 578 frequently. He is also a former chairman of the county MPO that establishes road funding priorities.

Mariano said both counties have delayed work on the road for various reasons. He said when he joined the board in 2005 Hernando leaders wanted to focus on fixing County Line intersections, not four-laning, and noted “They did a great job raising money for projects they wanted.”

Mariano said he recently asked the FDOT to schedule some workshops where local, state and federal officials could hash out a plan to finish the four-laning: “To get everyone together to talk things out is the only way to get this done.” He said the next step is for Hernando officials to solicit the same meetings from the FDOT.

He concluded by concurring with Allocco that road work around Wesley Chapel is a high priority, but they also want to see CR 578 improved.

Ironically, Beneck said Hillsborough County officials are reluctant to fund improvements to the County Line Road separating them from Pasco. “Hillsborough has not been cooperative,” he said.

The engineer said a number of county line roads in Florida are financial orphans because officials argue about who should pay for what: “I don’t know if agreements even exist to share maintenance or improvements on these roads owned by two counties,” he said.

A hazardous highway

FDOT archives show the department held public hearings in Spring Hill beginning in 2002 on the four-laning and Ayers Road Extension after completing a Project Development and Environment study.

The study determined CR 578 needed work at that time due to substandard traffic operations, future growth and traffic increases, visibility safety issues, designation as an emergency evacuation route and lack of pedestrian-bicycle facilities. The study stated the road was already operating at decreased service levels 20 years ago, especially during rush hours; as such it could endanger motorists, pedestrians, bike riders and coastal residents using it as a designated evacuation route.

“The recommended project involves improving CR 578 to a four-lane suburban facility from the vicinity of U.S. 19 to the vicinity of U.S. 41…” plus the Ayers Road Extension, the study concluded. It also states the projects would raise the functional classification for County Line Road from a major collector to an arterial roadway with a 55-mph speed limit.

The survey further noted that during the three years ending in 1999 there were 147 crashes on the road resulting in 127 injuries and two deaths, less than one per year. Recent numbers provided by Sgt. Steve Gaskins, public affairs officer for the Florida Highway Patrol, indicate the following for County Line Road:

  • 2018: 65 crashes resulting in three deaths and 29 injuries.
  • 2019: 54 crashes resulting in one death and 23 injuries.
  • 2020: 50 crashes resulting in four deaths and 19 injuries.
  • 2021 to this date: 30 crashes resulting in 0 deaths and 15 injuries.

While the numbers show accidents and injuries have leveled off, deaths have increased. More disturbing is an FHP map that reveals a disproportionate number of crashes (about twice as many) are occurring along the two-lane section crowded on both sides by commercial businesses and no traffic lights from East Road to Mariner Boulevard. This deadly section is one of the two parts of CR 578 that’s been pegged for four-laning and other safety improvements for the past 20 years.

Of course, the estimated population for Hernando County in 2000 was only 134,300 people, but it’s swelled to 200,600 today. Pasco’s population was about 347,200 then but has mushroomed to an estimated 583,661 this year.

The access problem caused by the large number of commercial businesses along this section is aggravated by a lack of frontage roads. Commercial properties also drive up the price of four-laning because buying them to gain right-of-way space costs more than residential or agricultural parcels.

The problem has also spilled over onto nearby Spring Hill Drive, which has been receiving frazzled drivers seeking relief from CR 578.

 

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