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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Next toll road town hall, no delaying the best part

LAND O’ LAKES — Next time somebody gets the bright idea to hold a town hall meeting, Pasco County officials could save everybody a lot of heartache (and, if they decide to hold it in another high school gymnasium, butt-ache) if they’d skip straight to the part of the program where the public vents. I mean, unless they like seeing one of their own in the role of — What was it Richard Gehring called it? Ah, yes — spear catcher.

As Pasco’s chief of strategic policy, it was Gehring’s unenviable duty to be master of ceremonies of the county’s introductory dog and pony. Er, PowerPoint presentation, which represented a game attempt to demonstrate how projects the magnitude of the one at hand — a proposed elevated toll road built and maintained by a private company that would, at some distant date, link U.S. 301 to U.S. 19 along the State Road 54/56 corridor — do not come about in a vacuum.

At just over an hour, however, the instructional portion of the evening would have been too long at half the time. Close to 500 suddenly concerned citizens filled the home stands of the Sunlake High School gym, and, demonstrating that they were in no mood to be educated by bureaucrats, they were restless at the 15-minute mark, heckling after 30 minutes and, not long after, started jeering like University of Ottawa students at an Ann Coulter speech.

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As the clock ticked toward 8, and with even Gehring tapping his watch during an exercise in watching paint dry — also known as anticipating traffic patterns in 2035 — someone cried, “It’s a town hall meeting! Let the people speak.”

I mean, who cares about 2035? By then, two-thirds of the audience will have had their keys taken away by their kids.

When they finally got around to it, at 8 past 8, the line of speakers was deeper than Billy Donovan’s bench. And by their scowls, you could tell they were about to treat the pro-toll-road forces (presumably the staff on stage) like the No. 1 Gators on a midweek visit to South Carolina.

For the record, the chastisement went on for nearly two hours. No one spoke in favor of the road. Perhaps its would-be supporters were stuck in traffic.

From Land O’ Lakes resident Susie Hoeller, who led off with a proper scolding — “The presentation was very demeaning” — to Pasco Republican State Committeewoman Sandy Graves, who rang down the curtain, speakers lectured the county’s administrators as well as the two commissioners on hand, Kathryn Starkey and Jack Mariano, on the variety of ways they thought this highway-in-the-sky scheme was radically harebrained.

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More than one presumed engineer — no one presented credentials, but they all seemed authoritative — pointed out the area’s problems with sinkholes and predicted mayhem resulting from toppling support pillars and collapsing roadways.

Others predicted collapses of another sort: property values within the toll road’s sphere of influence. Evidence to the contrary — Gehring showed a slide indicating rising, not falling, values around the Selmon Expressway linking southwest Tampa to Brandon — was drowned in a tsunami of hoots and jeers.

People know what they know, after all. And what they really know is not-in-my-back-yard.

There was a fascinating complaint about using a toll road to suck money from middle-class motorists to give to county officials, and another about road operators employing “congestion pricing” that would boost tolls so high during peak times “nobody could use it.” If that struck anyone else as an unwise business model, they didn’t say.

The claim that Pasco’s growth, established and anticipated, was simply another case of rich people selling land to people with bulldozers, who would buy more land to do it all over again, was met with thundering cheers. No, I don’t know where all the people from Occupy Sunlake live, but I suspect bulldozers and land barons were involved.

“All part of the democratic process,” County Administrator Michele Baker said afterward, having fulfilled the role of Clara Bow, silent star, flawlessly.

Several resorted to varieties of this fine old go-to chestnut: How come the county approved all these subdivisions and shopping centers — after I moved here? Because, property rights? Because Pasco doesn’t have a giant gate it can close?

And finally, there was the fellow who suggested Pasco ought to be more like The Villages, where residents scoot around in golf carts and nobody even thinks about needing an elevated toll road.

They probably don’t think about getting from Zephyrhills to a Tampa Bay Rays game or the Chasco Fiesta or Tarpon Springs, or from New Port Richey to the Straz Center or The Shops at Wiregrass or the Florida State Fair or Disney World, either, all of which would be more pleasantly accomplished if there were a new east-west highway, running overhead like a giant concrete monorail about where this one has been proposed, and erected with private money.

Yeah, making it easier to get from over here to over there, and from over there to over here — that would be terrible for Pasco’s quality of life. Absolute crazy stuff.

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