FDOT plans U.S. 301 bypass around Starke

Local businesses concerned they'll lose vital traffic

STARKE, Fla. - A highway alternative supposed to make a city safer and cut down on traffic is causing concern that it may also kill business.

The Florida Department of Transportation is planning to start construction on a bypass to U.S. 301 that would skirt around the city of Starke. The construction doesn't start for about two years but some local stores, hotels and restaurants are scared it'll take away all their traffic and their livelihoods.

Powell's Dairy Freeze has been a staple in Starke for more than 40 years. The shop off U.S. 301 is known for its steak sandwiches and ice cream sundaes. But workers here are worried about their future when the FDOT builds an alternate route around the city.

"This truck route is going to hurt everybody," said Kathy Blanchard, manager at Powell's Dairy Freeze. "The big corporations, they can move left and right, on ramp, off ramp. Little businesses like us, we don't stand a chance. We depend on the 301 traffic."

FDOT officials said there are traffic issues on 301 in Starke because a lot of semis come through. And with the trucks come crashes, safety issues and noise. They believe the plan is necessary to keep up with the growth on the roads and will be an opportunity for new businesses at the exits.

So the bypass would be a new road that veers off 301 about two miles north of city limits, loops around for seven miles, and then meets back up with the highway south of town.

The $120 million project, set to start in summer 2016, is getting mixed reviews. Robert Nason said he sits in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the morning and afternoon and can't wait.

"I've been living here for 20 years, and we need it because these 18-wheelers tie the road up," said Nason, a Bradford County resident. "The traffic has tripled in the last 20 years, and it's been astronomical trying to get down to Jacksonville and back up to I-10. It's been bumper-to-bumper, and we do need something to control the road system."

But others said the 70 mile per hour alternative will deal a horrible blow to the mom-and-pop shops that rely on those who pass through.

"It's the small businesses, that is really all we have," said Starke resident Cory Johns. "You got to be able to build something, and if there's no traffic, there's no ability to bring new customers in. You can't build a business (if) there's no way to get to Starke."

"Big businesses, they'll survive; they'll move to the on ramp or off ramp," Blanchard said. "Little businesses like us, we can't afford to do all that — so we'll still be open, but it's going to be rough."

Blanchard hopes people will refer to the new road as a "truck route" instead of a "bypass." She thinks that will keep people from skipping the city.

Starke Mayor Carolyn Brown Spooner said she understands the concerns, but she thinks the city will be safer and travelers might want to stop in the city more, because they won't have to deal with the traffic. She said it could keep them from taking I-75 or other highways instead.

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