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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Pasco ponders a monorail you could drive on

The biggest problem with building 33 miles of elevated toll road stretching from south of Zephyrhills to New Port Richey is not what you’d think, especially if you think — who wouldn’t? — the biggest problem would be some combination of construction and maintenance expenses plus concerns environmental and aesthetic.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Pasco County already has fielded an unsolicited bid from a private investor who appears to have identified cash-flow gold by erecting such a road along right-of-way controlled by the Florida Department of Transportation.

So, we don’t have to raise or divert taxes to pay for it. And because the route belongs to FDOT, the environmental concerns have been resolved.

Moreover, it is hard to overstate the highway’s cool factor. The digital artist’s rendering of a possible finished product suggests traffic solutions sprung from the computer screens of Disney Co. Imagineers: concrete roadways cutting clean lines against an untroubled sky, supported by elegant, sweeping capital Ts swaddled in vines of brightly blooming bougainvillea.

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If we weren’t told otherwise, we’d guess gleaming monorail trains were whispering past overhead. And we’d approve, because, as demonstrated by any responsible public survey on transit as well as our letters-to-the-editor columns, we like monorail trains.

But this would be even better. This would be a monorail track you could drive your car on.

The big trouble, it turns out, is we don’t know what’s going on. According to Pasco County commissioners’ reports about the content shrieking in their email in-boxes anyway, and they have no motive to fib.

After all, none of them has said anything approaching, “If you like your route to The Shops at Wiregrass, you can keep your route to The Shops at Wiregrass. Period.”

Evidently, a substantial portion of your neighbors both fear the unknown and are willing to embrace calamitous conclusions based entirely on their lack of information.

To hear commissioners describe the tenor of their electronic mail, that’s what’s happening here. Alas, our representative democracy cannot assign homework, the upshot being the uniformed vote in numbers just as large as the knowledgeable.

Worse, it’s not just folks who comprise the great commuting surge south every workday morning, and north every workday afternoon. The alarmed, says Commissioner Ted Schrader, includes home builders and other developers conducting business in Pasco, and who ought to be up to speed.

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Noting the illustration mentioned above, Schrader said on developers’ behalf during Tuesday’s board meeting, “It’s a pretty picture, but would you want to live next to that?”

Noting one likely alternative — ever-wider surface roads to ward off gridlock — first-term Commissioner Kathryn Starkey (no stranger to developments along State Road 54) shot back, “What’s their solution? Twenty lanes takes away their development.”

There were complaints from the board the highway in the sky hadn’t been properly vetted, that other routes weren’t weighed, and that staff — and by staff they meant Planning and Development Administrator Richard Gehring — had hastily dismissed the Urban Land Institute’s warnings.

This last was pure tush-covering rhetoric, otherwise the board’s decision to shell out six figures to consultants on a five-day drive-by visit looks especially awful. As if pressing ULI’s cookie-cutter solutions into Pasco’s unique dough weren’t awful to begin with.

Well. We’d liked to have been a fly on the wall when Gehring got back to his office.

Even so, summoning the courage to “be visionaries,” as Starkey said, the board passed, unanimously and despite the important reservations of Commissioner Henry Wilson, who doubles as chairman of Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, a resolution to continue studying an elevated highway as a potential slice of our transportation pie.

Although, by the time they were finished softening it up with weasel phrases, commissioners might just as well have been resolving to agree to study recipes for kumquat pie.

Still, they didn’t shut it down, and they resolved to get your neighbors coached up on the matter, both decisions boosting Pasco’s chances of heading off gridlock.

All in all, an elevating day’s work.

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