RUSKIN — It’s a nightly headache for motorists heading south at rush hour on Interstate 75. Far ahead of the approach to Big Bend Road, brake lights pepper the horizon.
Monday through Friday, exiting traffic blocks the right-hand lane of the southbound interstate as cars wait in line to exit. Commuters who must cope with the back-ups are eager for a solution, they told Hillsborough County officials at a transportation workshop last week.
And with hundreds of new houses planned on land just south and west of the I-75/Big Bend Road interchange, Apollo Beach Boulevard should be extended to the interstate and an interchange built there, some people told the county officials.
The workshop, an update of an area-wide transportation plan for southern Hillsborough County, produced good and bad news for those who travel roads south of the Alafia River.
The good news: Improvements are coming to the I-75 interchange at Big Bend Road, the widening of Boyette Road continues and workers this year will add lanes to Bell Shoals Road between Bloomingdale Avenue and Boyette Road.
The Big Bend project — a partnership between the county and Florida’s Department of Transportation — will include more turn lanes at the foot of the exit ramps and additional lanes on Big Bend Road to reduce or eliminate the back-ups, said Rich Clarendon, who is with the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which oversees long-range regional transportation issues. The Big Bend project is scheduled to be completed in 2015.
The bad news: Those seeking relief on Apollo Beach Boulevard, which now ends at U.S. 41, might have to wait a long time. Years; maybe a decade or more.
Much of the funding for the road projects is tied to development, which drastically slowed as the economy took a nose-dive a few years ago. While housing construction again is picking up and developers, in turn, are contributing, road construction funds are coming in at a slow pace.
The reality, Clarendon said, is there are more projects people would like to see in south county than there is funding to build them.
And an interchange for Apollo Beach Boulevard, which would cost tens of millions of dollars to build, isn’t on anyone’s funding list.
Newland Communities, the developer of Waterset, a housing development planned on 1,300 acres between Big Bend and 19th Avenue, has an agreement with the county to pay for road projects to offset its effects. But, like elsewhere, home construction at Waterset is proceeding more slowly than predicted. And because road funding is tied to building permits, most of it still is not available.
One of the projects Newland ultimately must fund is the extension of Apollo Beach Boulevard from U.S. 41 east to County Road 672 (Balm Road), including an overpass at I-75. But Alex McLeod, vice president of operations for Newland, said company representatives plan to meet soon with county officials to discuss possible changes regarding how Newland’s money will be spent.
When Waterset was approved in 2005, McLeod said, people in the area thought the interstate overpass made sense. But with the slowdown in construction, it might be 15 years before that road and overpass are built — if the original plan remains in place.
It might make more sense to pay for roadwork needs that are more pressing, McLeod said, including improvements at Big Bend Road.
McLeod said he also plans to meet with community groups to discuss tweaking the Waterset road-funding commitments. “We may change them to no longer tie (the funding) to building permits, but to needs and dates, instead. No matter what, we will extend Apollo Beach Boulevard and we will preserve the right-of-way for a potential future overpass.”
With a new hospital coming to the area, Amazon planning a major distribution center in Ruskin and a shopping mall in the planning stages, there are plenty of roadway needs, Clarendon said. He ticked off a list of them, but emphasized not all of them can be built in the next year or two.
Some other projects on the books for the South Shore area
* An intelligent management system on I-75 installed this year to enable the Florida Department of Transportation to monitor the highway with cameras to get accidents off the road faster and alert commuters to conditions ahead.
* Resurfacing of U.S. 41 this year from 15th Avenue to the Manatee County Line.
* Adding four lanes to U.S. 301 from Balm Road to Sun City Center (State Road 674), starting in 2016.
* Designing and constructing phase one of the South Coast Greenway, a multi-use trail, from 19th Avenue to College Avenue (SR 674) by 2016.