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Residents dreaming of road projects

TARA — Like the old Dusty Springfield song, county Commissioner Donna Hayes had her District 5 advisory council members “wishing and hoping and thinking and praying” about transportation improvements.

Ron Schulhofer, director of Manatee County Public Works, looked into his crystal ball Friday and talked to advisory council members about what the county could do with federal stimulus money.

It turns out quite a lot, including coordinating traffic lights in Manatee and Sarasota, resurfacing roads and rehabbing bridges, although U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan cautioned county commissioners earlier this week not to expect too much.

Grace Carlson, spokeswoman for the Tampa Bay Regional Traffic Authority, talked about how the regional plan is shaping up and how it could bring a network of rail and buses to the Tampa Bay area.

The Tampa Bay area is the only one of the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas that lacks a regional system that provides an alternative to using automobiles, she said.

When the plan is implemented, it will “create jobs, improve the quality of life and give transportation choices that are convenient, affordable and accessible,” Carlson said.

A series of town hall meetings and a public hearing are planned, and Carlson said she is trying to visit many civic organizations between now and May to get public input.

Schulhofer said once stimulus money is released to Manatee County, the county has 120 days to request the money.

“It’s difficult to obligate that much money in three months,” he said, adding that the process would be complicated by having to follow cumbersome federal rules in using the money. Manatee County has identified $61 million in “shovel ready” transportation projects that it can move forward on, including $8 million for the automatic traffic management system, which would coordinate traffic signals and ease the flow of traffic.

How much stimulus money would Manatee transportation projects receive? Schulhofer hazarded a guess of about $30 million.

Schulhofer also received a few questions from the advisory committee.

Clint Miller, of Rosedale, said he was concerned about traffic that would be generated by a proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter at the southeast corner of State Road 70 and Interstate 75.

“There is a traffic study under way. It will require some improvements,” Schulhofer said.

Other concerns voiced from residents included the proposed Tara bridge, linking Tara Boulevard and Honore Avenue, and red-light running at Tara Boulevard and State Road 70.

In the face of public objections, county commissioners recently deferred plans for the bridge.

But the plan to build a bridge is “still on the table,” Schulhofer said. “It’s still a recommendation from staff that it be built.”

Schulhofer also addressed the legal U-turns that motorists make from the west bound left-turn lane of S.R. 70 to get into the east-bound lanes. He said traffic studies have shown that the U-turns are not dangerous, but the red-light running by drivers at the intersection is not only dangerous but illegal. He said the county has requested stepped-up law enforcement to stem the tide of red light runners.

James A. Jones Jr., editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.