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Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Plan to widen State Road 60 in rural area gets mixed reaction

VALRICO — The time will come when State Road 60’s rural swath won’t be so rural, state road officials say.

Traffic on the ribbon of pavement between Valrico Road and the Polk County line will increase 54 percent — some 71,000 vehicle trips per day — by 2040, Florida’s Department of Transportation estimates. Unless that 12.3-mile segment is widened to six lanes, it will not measure up to its designation as a major east-west corridor and evacuation route, transportation officials say.

“It’s not going to be built anytime soon, but at least we can look at the impacts,” said Kirk Bogen, environmental management engineer for the DOT. Bogen estimates it will be five to 15 years before any construction gets under way.

The decision to pursue the project was based on growth projections, he said, which could include conversion of farmland to subdivisions and businesses along the highway. For now the area is dotted with strawberry fields, mobile home parks, farm stands, and a sprinkling of older houses and new construction.

The state transportation agency notified people who own property within 300 feet of the roadway of the state’s intention, and invited them to a recent public meeting. About 20 people showed up and some filled out comment forms, but none specifically addressed the widening. A few wanted more lighting where State Road 60 slices through rural areas, and protection for pedestrians crossing the highway. A couple of them complained of excessive speed on the road between State Road 39, south of Plant City, and the Polk County line.

Hillsborough County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which orchestrates future transportation plans, objects to the state’s plan.

The area east of Dover Road is rural and would remain so in the county’s blueprint for future growth, according to a letter the MPO sent to the state road agency earlier this month. Also, there is not enough demand for the project and there are higher priorities in the Brandon area where traffic is chaotic, said Lisa Silva, an MPO planner.

“I am liaison to the local roadways committee” and there are concerns, Silva said. “Why a six-lane ... highway in the rural area, especially when there are so many other needs?”

Rose Panella, who lives in the Strawberry Ridge retirement community just west of Dover Road, said the state and county would be wise to spend the money on mass transit, including reliable and more convenient buses and light rail.

“Six lanes isn’t going to be very helpful,” Panella said. “Put in light rail to get things moving. They need to worry about what is already going on in the more populated area. Let’s handle things where it’s hot, where the population is.”

Lynn Mahoney, who manages the Brandon Farms produce stand just east of Dover Road, called the project “a joke.”

“The sidewalks and bike lanes they are talking about including are a waste of money.” Few if any people would use them, she said. “And the traffic on State Road 60 ... I see it every day, but it’s when you drive into Brandon that it’s like driving in Tampa anymore. It’s bumper to bumper.”

The state and county should focus on existing growth areas, Mahoney said, where roadwork has not kept pace with residential and business development.

“I do think traffic is going to increase, but with the new I-4 (Interstate 4) connector (going to the Port of Tampa), why would trucks take State Road 60?” said Terry Flott, director of United Citizens Action Network (UCAN) of Hillsborough County. “From what I hear, the truckers have all said they would not go on State Road 60 unless they have to. They’d rather use I-4.”

But all the trucks traveling east and west can’t use just one road, even if it is an interstate, Bogen said. “There is just too much truck traffic to put on one roadway. They will use the route that is more convenient,” and in some cases that will be State Road 60.

Bogen said state transportation officials will seek federal funding for the project. He said consideration of widening the road began as a study of freight traffic in the area between Valrico and Dover roads, but in order to seek federal funding the scope of the project needed to be expanded, so it now includes the segment between Dover and County Line roads.

Meanwhile, the MPO is addressing the segment of State Road 60 between Valrico Road and Interstate 75 in what it calls the Brandon Boulevard Compatibility Study. It has come up with recommendations on how the county can improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Silva presented some of those recommendations to county Engineer Mike Williams last week. There are no plans to widen the road in that area, but there is a need for more pedestrian crossings and bike lanes, she said.

“We talked about trying to develop parallel corridors for bicycles and pedestrians to the north and south of State Road 60,” Williams said. “Maybe Oakfield Drive, then also to the north. Maybe a trail. We’ll look into getting state and federal dollars for that.”

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