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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Toll road inches ahead; it's all good

As the optimist tumbling from a skyscraper could be heard to say as he passed open windows on his way down: So far, so good.

This is not to say, regarding the proposed elevated toll highway along the State Road 54/56 corridor, we anticipate anything like the falling fellow's abrupt and unfortunate end. The point, instead, is we're exceedingly early in the process, and no one who could have thrown up a roadblock has done so.

In short, we've inched closer to driving nonstop from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301 than we've been since the invention of the intersection.

Wednesday, a little more than a month after Pasco County commissioners gave their provisional blessing, officials from the Florida Department of Transportation accepted a bid from a private partnership to build an elevated toll highway linking east and west Pasco.

This does not mean it's time to summon the piledrivers. There's still the right-of-way lease to haggle over with the state, and skeptics to quell in the Pasco County legislative delegation. Sen. John Legg already has lobbed the property values bomb on behalf of his constituents who live along the presumed route.

Moreover, it's not like Pasco County Commissioner Henry Wilson, not entirely convinced to begin with, wouldn't bolt in a heartbeat. And you know finding out which candidates — county and state — stand where, and why, has the potential for explosiveness in the election year ahead.

After all, as Commissioner Kathryn Starkey told the Tribune's Laura Kinsler, “We have challenges on 54, and none of the solutions are perfect. ... We can't widen 54 to 20 lanes. Of course, an elevated highway isn't perfect, either.”

And there you go. In the blue sky phase that is campaign season, anything short of perfect is certain to bring out the nitpickers. But as they sharpen their pincers — opening salvo: “A toll is a tax by another name!” — certain facts, sufficient, at minimum, to commission a rendering, will endure.

Foremost among them is this: Area transportation experts have for a while touted an elevated, limited-access tollway along the precise route proposed here as the best response to congestion in southern Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties.

Scarcely less significant is that private dollars will pay for the entire 33-mile road on pillars — working title: FL 54 Xpress — pumping about $2 billion into the local economy. That's $2 billion in fresh cash, not taken out of your pocket and strained through myriad government agencies before it gets back here.

And, as noted above, the group, International Infrastructure Partners — Lutz engineer Gerald Stanley and construction giant OHL, with offices in New York and Miami — would pay the state more than $1 million annually to lease the ground beneath the road. That's ground, it's worth noting, that's returning nothing to taxpayers just this moment, and won't if IIP, or some other private group, doesn't build the highway.

Additionally, once up and operating, the road would be a boon to Pasco's mass transit ambitions, providing just the sort of uncluttered breezeway that's key to making BRT (bus rapid transit) attractive enough to coax drivers out of their cars. And it's a heck of a lot cheaper than laying and operating light rail.

Listen, as long as we're dreaming, IIP's highway in the sky would be the road of choice for getaways to spring training games at the Wiregrass Ranch baseball complex.

The downside, to the extent such a thing exists, is we'll have to suffer toll booths or slap a sensor on our windshields. But that was going to happen anyway, no matter who built it. The rest of the good news is, we won't be paying for it twice, with general taxes up front and tolls when we use it.

All in all, what's not to like?

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