Pasco officials say DOT ready to scrap private toll road

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Pasco officials say DOT ready to scrap plans for proposed toll road
By Lisa Buie and Rich Shopes,
Times Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 7, 2014

State transportation officials are moving to scrap plans to let a private investor build a toll road across southern Pasco County amid concerns that the project would need tax dollars to be viable.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad "wants to reach out one more time and see if we have the facts straight, but right now it does not look good," department spokeswoman Kris Carson said after a meeting DOT officials had with the group proposing the road.

Last summer, a private consortium called FL Express 54 came forward with an unsolicited proposal to build a toll road along State Road 54 from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301, some of it above existing lanes. The consortium would have leased right of way, shared the toll revenues with the state and paid for construction and the road's operation.

The idea generated support initially because, as pitched, it would have required only private money. But by December, a groundswell of opposition had formed in south Pasco, and several county commissioners were starting to question the proposal.

Commissioner Henry Wilson flat-out rejected the idea, followed by commission Chairman Jack Mariano.

"I'm delighted that the DOT made this decision. I think it's the right decision," Mariano said. "I'm glad they looked at the feasibility of it and reviewed that, but from the overwhelming negative feelings about the plan coming from the community and the objections raised, it was definitely the right decision to make for the people."

Hundreds of residents calling themselves Pasco Fiasco lined up against the road. Rich Connors, the group's founder, called the state's decision "a big victory."

DOT spokesman Dick Kane said Prasad had misgivings after a May 1 videoconference with local DOT officials and FL Express 54. The sides went back and forth about whether to shorten the road to 10 miles from 30 and place more of it at ground level.

"There was a lot of technical information, and the project raised more questions than (it) answered in trying to understand what needs to be done," Kane said.

He added that transportation officials were told initially that the project would be financed through private dollars. Then the group proposed using public funding, as well.

"That was not what we were initially led to believe," Kane said.

He wasn't sure how much state funding FL Express 54 was requesting.

FL Express 54 includes local engineer Gerald Stanley, a New York financier and Spanish road-building company OHL Infrastructure. Calls to Stanley were not returned.

The consortium submitted its proposal to transportation officials unsolicited, withdrew it briefly and resubmitted it in January. Public hearings were expected this summer.

As officials evaluated the plan, support for it in Pasco faltered.

Prasad said from the outset that the project would not proceed if Pasco opposed it. Scores of south county residents sought to capitalize on that promise.

Hundreds started attending town hall meetings organized by the county and writing emails to commissioners. Staff presented the road as an alternative to the massive widening of SR 54 needed to keep pace with growth, but many of the residents complained that the county was resorting to scare tactics to garner support for the road.

Officials got an earful in March when speakers lined up for more than an hour to blast the project as a threat to real estate values, businesses and south Pasco's ambience. Many said the road would divide the community and create noise and pollution.

Then in March, the Urban Land Institute reiterated its findings, noting that many communities with elevated roads were looking to scrap them. It advised Pasco to work with other counties toward regional traffic solutions.
Pasco's planning director, Richard Gehring, supported the road for months, but said the decision to abandon the project was ultimately the state's — though it leaves Pasco in a lurch. The county still needs to fix traffic congestion in south Pasco, he said.

The county's Metropolitan Planning Organization will make recommendations about south Pasco as part of its long-range transportation plan due in December.

Gehring said he viewed the state's rejection as part of "a positive learning experience" after hearing residents demand alternatives. He said county staff are evaluating those alternatives, which include widening the road, adding bus rapid transit, express lanes and other measures.

"I think it was a positive that someone was looking at this idea and responding to it," he said of the DOT. "But there is still a strong demand for solutions for what happens in that corridor. We still need a solution."

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