Now that it has opened to traffic, the S.R. 56 Extension is expected to provide a boon to local businesses, as well as create a badly needed 4-lane East-West road crossing Pasco County.

WHEN PLANS were originally made to extend S.R. 56 all the way from Meadow Pointe Blvd in Wiregrass Ranch all the to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills, they included a lane in each direction.

Wesley Chapel’s growth, however, rendered those original plans moot.

“That wasn’t going to be enough,” said District 2 county commissioner Mike Moore.

So after some creative management and a wealth of cooperation between the Florida Department of Transportation, Pasco County, the City of Zephyrhills and multiple landowners along the proposed extension, the eastward expansion of S.R. 56 officially opened for traffic on July 10 as a freshly-paved, scenic, six-mile, four-lane road winding through pastures, in between trees and alongside ponds, while connecting Wesley Chapel to Zephyrhills.

“It’s a beautiful road,” said FDOT District 7 secretary David Gwynn, against the backdrop of four lanes running into a horizon flanked by nature. “Not just the road, but the surrounding area as well.”

City officials from Zephyrhills, all but one of Pasco’s county commissioners, the media and a number of other local dignitaries were given a sneak preview of the road on July 9, driving it from U.S. 301, through a signalized intersection at Morris Bridge Rd. and past Meadow Pointe Blvd.

Moore said no one was more excited about the extension than he was. The day it opened to everyone (June 10), he says he drove the length of it twice — once for work, and another time to visit his mother, who lives in Zephyrhills. He said the drive cut 15-20 minutes off his typical travel time in that direction, along the two-lane S.R. 54 (which also is in the process of being widened to four lanes).

He also touted the access to Polk County and even Orlando (via I-4) that the extension will provide, allowing residents in the area an alternative route.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Moore said. “I think people are going to love it. I was on Facebook, and I saw a lot of good comments from people who are definitely happy about it.”

In fact, a Neighborhood News Online video about the opening had more than 15,000 views in less than 24 hours, with hundreds of likes and mostly positive comments about the new road on Facebook (search “Neighborhood News”).

Among those who are happy about it is Ann Marie Schumaker, who lives in Zephyrhills but works at Soriano Insurance in Wesley Chapel. “I love the 56 extension,” she says. “Now I don’t have to take the dreaded Meadow Pointe cut-through up to 54 and sit in traffic during rush hour times with all the construction going on to go into Zephyrhills….it saves me 20 minutes every morning and evening on my daily commute to work. Being a single mom and having to make pick-up times is stressful. So, any extra time I can save is great. I’m overly excited. I’ve been waiting so long for this extension to be done.”

The extension is expected to provide an economic benefit to businesses in Wesley Chapel. Residents in Zephyrhills should find visiting the Shops at Wiregrass and Tampa Premium Outlets, as well as the many surrounding businesses in the area, to be a much easier and quicker trek. 

The only option to go from Wesley Chapel to Zephyrhills has been driving on one lane westbound on S.R. 54, which is roughly a 25-30 minute trip in light traffic, and even longer during morning and evening rush hours, especially when the snowbirds are in town in the winter and spring. The new extension will make those jaunts significantly shorter.

Currently, the road remains a nice trip through what District 1 commissioner and lifelong county resident Ron Oakley called “old Pasco.”

It can be enjoyed by bicyclists looking to take advantage of a generous 7-foot-wide bike lane in either direction, as well as pedestrians who can walk along a 10-foot- wide multi-use trail on the south side or a 5-foot wide sidewalk on the north side of the new 56 extension.

The completion of the project gives Pasco County it’s first 4-lane road from U.S. 19 to the west to U.S. 301 to the east, Oakley said. 

“I’ve spent my entire life in Pasco County with only two-lane roads,” he said.

How It Happened

Moore said the county was smart to look ahead and make a deal to extend S.R. 56 with four lanes. He said too many times roads are constructed, only to need widening or other work to accommodate growth 10 years later, when the costs also will be greater.

To get the extension changed from two to four lanes was monumental, Moore said, and no easy feat.  

The BOCC had to approve seven different agreements in 2016 to come up with a plan to repay a $22.7-million loan from the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB), which provides investment funds for surface transportation projects. That loan will be repaid with money from the county, the City of Zephyrhills and via mobility fee surcharges to developers of Wesley Chapel Lakes, Wyndfields, River Landing and Two Rivers Ranch, all of which will eventually have communities along the road.

Most of the $59.7-million total cost (plus another $7-8 million in interest) to build the extension came from FDOT, which contributed $35 million.

Oakley said that the beautiful terrain the extension cuts through previously has only been seen by local ranchers, and that those who are now using the road should enjoy it while they can. In 8-10 years, he said, that definitely could change, as Wesley Chapel Lakes, Wyndfields, River Landing and Two Rivers Ranch are expected to add as many as 10,000 new homes to the corridor. 

Businesses, parks and new schools also are expected as well.

But for now, the extension of S.R. 56 is a scenic convenience.

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