Florida Department of Transportation officials used matchbox cars to demonstrate how the diverging diamond interchange at I-75/S.R 56 will work. 

S.R. 54 is being widened, SR. 56 is being extended, and the intersection of I-75 and S.R. 56 is being fixed with a futuristic diverging diamond interchange, or DDI. 

All at the same time.

It’s part of an expensive game of catch-up for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) as it tries, mostly in vain, to accomplish the impossible task of keeping up with Wesley Chapel’s rapid and no-end-in-sight development with $134.7-million worth of road projects.

Roughly a dozen officials from FDOT held a public information meeting Feb. 26 at Pasco Hernando State College (PHSC)’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch to provide an update on its progress with videos, large poster board layouts of the projects and even Matchbox cars to show how the flow of traffic will work in the DDI.

“The area is changing quicker than the roadway network is, as you can see,” says FDOT spokesperson John McShaffrey. “We’re just doing these projects to manage the traffic that we already have. It’s obviously going to help, but the area is going to keep growing, too. These projects won’t be the end of work in this part of Pasco County at all.”

The $33-million diverging diamond, considered the (pardon the pun) gem of the three projects, is what Wesley Chapel retirees Dan and Judy Whaley came to see. Dan says they left with a better understanding of how it will work.

“Once you look at it closely, it makes sense,” he said.

The Whaleys say the DDI, which will help ease congestion from C.R. 54 west of I-75 to Cypress Ridge Blvd. to the east of I-75, is much needed. The thought of driving along S.R. 56 on either side of the interstate is rarely one they entertain, which means fewer trips to the plethora of retail stores and restaurants in the area.

“Only when we have to,” Dan said.

The DDI, scheduled for completion in late 2021, will create more continuous green time through the intersection for traffic, and is expected to clear up one of the hot spots for backed up traffic in Wesley Chapel – the northbound exit ramp off I-75.

“It will clear that queue and reduce it down hugely, so you won’t see that two-mile back up anymore,” says Ryan Forrestel, PE of American Consulting Professionals, LLC.

Extending S.R. 56

At the other (eastern) end of S.R. 56, a much-simpler six-mile extension is being constructed from Meadow Pointe Blvd. to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills.

That project is taking place over undeveloped land, and doesn’t have to worry about working around traffic, businesses or homes. However, it has had its own issues, as damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017 delayed the project for weeks and rainy weather has saturated the area east of Morris Bridge Rd.

“The ground is soggy out here,” says Mike Kopotic, construction manager of the CEI office, “but you have to remember this all used to be cattle fields.”

The extension of S.R. 56 from where it currently ends at Meadow Pointe Blvd. to U.S. Hwy. 301 in Zephyrhills was another topic of discussion at the FDOT Open House.

The extension will be two lanes in each direction, with a multi-use path on the south side and a sidewalk on the north side.

Travelers using Morris Bridge Rd. already can see what looks like a mostly completed extension to the west, while the eastern view is still a work in progress.

Kopotic says the extension, which has a $59.2-million price tag, is expected to be completed by the fall.

S.R. 54 Widening Continues

Just a little further north, the widening of S.R. 54 from east of Curley Rd. to just east of Morris Bridge Rd. is in progress. “It has been a long time in the making,” says Pasco’s S.R. 54 project manager Richard Frank.

Originally, plans were made in 2010 (after roughly a decade of discussions) for a four-lane Zephyrhills Bypass Extension, which would begin just east of Curley Rd. and run along the northern edge of the New River Development of Regional Impact (DRI) and what is now Avalon Park West, before connecting to Eiland Blvd., where Wesley Chapel meets Zephyrhills. The proposed bypass would have relieved traffic on S.R. 54, but those plans were placed on hold in favor of getting S.R. 56 built.

“It will eventually connect to Eiland Blvd.,” Frank says. “The developer or county will develop it. In the meantime, something has to happen out there and that is what this job does.”

S.R. 54 will go from its current two lanes to four lanes, with intermittent dedicated turn lanes, as well as a number of safety improvements, such as limiting left turns out of side streets like Foxwood Blvd., which has been the site of numerous accidents.

Frank says the $42.5-million project will prove to be a lot more than just widening of a 4.5-mile stretch of road.

“We are moving every single utility that’s out there, too,” he said. “Power, water, sewer, fiber optics and your communication lines. It’s not like we can just come out there and lay pipe and we’re done. It’s almost more of a reconstruction project than it is a widening. It’s a brand new road.”

Frank says it should be completed in the spring of 2021.

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