Expert urges toll lanes on S.R. 54
NEW PORT RICHEY - A transportation consultant told county officials Thursday it could cost $2 billion to build an elevated toll road through the middle of State Road 54, but despite the cost, that project would give Pasco commuters the most bang for the buck. Engineer Mike Coleman with RS&H consultants presented his final S.R.54/56 corridor study to the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization. He said the firm considered several options for improving traffic flow along the county's main east-west corridor since transportation officials have no plans to widen the road beyond its current six-lane configuration. "We looked at a few different technologies: Bus Rapid Transit, express bus and light rail," Coleman said. With a minimum cost of $20 million per mile, the firm quickly eliminated light rail from consideration. He noted that light rail makes sense for Pinellas County, which could expect 21,000 riders a day. Pasco's projected ridership topped out at 4,500 per day. The firm also ruled out ground-level enhanced bus service, noting that it would disrupt local traffic flow and still would serve only 4,000 riders per day.Which leaves the elevated toll road option: The firm studied the pros and cons of building a two-lane road, with one lane in each direction, verses a four-lane toll road. The cost to build the two-lane toll road ranges from $1.3 to 1.5 billion. Adding one more lane in each direction bumps the cost up to between $1.8 billion and $2 billion. The toll road could include a transit component with as many as eight park-and-ride lots at key interchanges. The study included two toll charges: 14-cents per mile and 21-cents per mile. Depending on the toll pricing, the usage would fluctuate between 67,800 and 86,000 trips per day. A motorist would have to pay between $4 and $5 to drive the entire length of the 28-mile road from Bruce B. Downs Boulevard to U.S. 19 without having to stop at a single traffic light. "I would gladly pay $5 to be able to drive all the way across the county," Zephyrhills City Councilman Lance Smith said. Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said it's important for Pasco residents to realize that the county and Florida Department of Transportation would look to the private sector to finance the construction. Even the Florida Turnpike Authority partners with private investors to build more toll roads, such as the new managed lanes on Interstate 95 in Miami. "When we talk about managed lanes, stress the fact that we're not talking about public funding," Schrader said. A toll road on S.R. 54 could generate as much as $20 million a year. "No one's going to do it if they can't make money," Schrader said. "We just need to be willing to allow them to explore it. The private sector will tell us if it's a worthy project." Coleman said the next step would be for RS&H to make a formal recommendation that Pasco, FDOT and the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority select the four-lane elevated toll road as their preferred alternative. Once that selection is made, the agencies can conduct a more extensive toll study and begin the process of forming a public-private partnership to build and operate the road. Coleman said his firm is coordinating the Pasco study with another firm looking at transit and toll options along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Hillsborough County. The two projects would connect and share a transit station in Wesley Chapel, he said.
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