NEW PORT RICHEY — A panel of planning experts cautioned Pasco County officials against a proposal to build an elevated toll road along the State Road 54/56 corridor.
The stunning recommendation highlighted the report from the Urban Land Institute, whose members spent the week in Pasco County. But it comes less than two weeks before the Florida Department of Transportation is set to open bids for a privately financed toll road across the county.
Charles Long, a former Oakland city manager who co-chaired the ULI panel, said at least 10 other communities across the nation are removing elevated freeways to improve their communities. The panelists said that allowing the toll road to move forward would have very significant negative impacts.
“It’s not something you want to rush into,” Long said, noting his experience in Oakland. “You would be amazed at the quality of life that has improved because the earthquake knocked down those elevated freeways.”
Even though the elevated highway would include some form of Bus Rapid Transit, the panelists said Pasco should concentrate more on building “walkable communities” along the main east-west corridor.
“Cities that are known for a high quality of life start with planning for pedestrians and bikes, then transit and last, the car,” said Diane Dale, who specializes in sustainable development.
Richard Gehring, the county’s growth management administrator, said Pasco settled on the elevated toll road concept after ruling out every other option. Five years ago, county leaders embraced plans for a light rail corridor on S.R. 54/56, but that was before Hillsborough voters rejected funding for the rail system.
“In a perfect, good-planning world, they’re very rational proposals,” Gehring said. “But I have to live in the world we’re in.”
The ULI panel also wasn’t a fan of the county’s mobility fee system, which uses tax revenue to subsidize certain types of development in west Pasco and along S.R. 54. Long said the county would be better served by focusing on ways to redevelop the blighted U.S. 19 corridor.
“People say there is no way attract business to west Pasco,” Long said. “They say that Route 19 is a disaster.”
The county should earmark funds to buy property on U.S. 19 and work with the private sector to build quality mixed-use, infill projects there, he said.
Panelists said that if Pasco wants to shed its image as a bedroom community it needs a more thriving arts community — that includes a performing arts center. “One of the things we heard is people leave the county for culture as well as jobs,” panelist Bill Lawrence said.
Commissioners had sought advice on arts and cultural funding. They also asked the panel for recommendations on how to spend economic development money in the next round of Penny of Pasco.
Panelist April Anderson Lamoureux said the focus needs to be on two major areas: the healthcare industry and small business expansion. She said 86-percent of the businesses in Pasco County have fewer than 10 employees, so the county and the Pasco Economic Development Council should focus their efforts on helping those existing businesses grow.
Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said she made a valid point. “We may have to rethink our investments in economic development to bring more focus to small business,” he said. “I will have to give more thought to that. It was good to get that perspective.”
They also recommended the county double its current tourist tax from 2-percent to 4-percent and allocate more funding to promote eco-tourism.