NEW PORT RICHEY — With the addition of two words, Pasco commissioners went from a majority vote to a unanimous vote for a resolution endorsing a proposed elevated toll road on the State Road 54/56 corridor.
Those words: “a” and “possible.”
Instead of saying the elevated toll road is “the solution” to address future transportation needs, commissioners agreed to say it’s “a possible solution.”
“It doesn’t mean you support building it — it just means you support studying it,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said.
The Florida Department of Transportation has already spent about $750,000 on various studies and preliminary plans. Consultants are in the middle of a feasibility and tolling study now, and bids are due Monday at the DOT office in Tallahassee for private investors to build and operate the toll road.
County Administrator Michele Baker said the commission’s support for the resolution means the study can continue regardless of whether the DOT receives a bid. The state and Florida Turnpike Authority could partner to build the project some time in the future, she said.
But DOT Secretary Ananth Presad wanted a commitment from county leaders to move forward — something that wasn’t guaranteed going into Tuesday’s meeting.
After a group of planning experts from the Urban Land Institute cautioned the county against building an elevated highway, some commissioners began to rethink their support for the project. Chairman Charles Long said major cities across the United States were in the process of removing elevated highways.
“I’m having a difficult time just ignoring their suggestion,” Commissioner Ted Schrader said. “I know they were only here for a week, but they’ve been doing this for a while.”
Commissioner Henry Wilson said he has serious reservations about the project. “I’m not sure that this has truly been vetted as far as all the options that are out there,” he said. “There has been very, very little public input on this — there’s an assumption that if this resolution passes, we are committing money to this.”
Richard Gehring, the county’s growth management administrator, said DOT consultants studies 18 various options — ranging from light rail to building a 20-lane highway — to accommodate the future transportation needs for the corridor. Each was ruled out because it was either too expensive or impractical. “In our minds, the alternatives have been thoroughly evaluated,” he said.
He said the roadway he envisions is more akin to the elevated portions of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the proposed Gandy Connector. That design allows for more circulation and is better for business than solid concrete overpasses of the past.
“I think it’s an attractive solution to a bad problem,” Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. “For me, a 20-lane highway going through Wesley Chapel and Land O ‘Lakes is not a solution. The elevated option allows for pedestrian traffic and bicycle traffic.”
The project also has support from the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority because it’s one of only two major east-west corridors for the region. “This is one of our project priorities,” executive director Bob Clifford said.
Pasco Economic Development Council Director John Hagen called the proposal a “novel and fairly elegant solution” and admitted the ULI panel “threw us a bit of a curveball when they said, ‘Hey, you ought to look at this twice.’ ”
All of the commissioners agreed there needs to be more public input in the process. “There was never any intent to rush this,” Starkey said. “The reason this was rushed is because (FDOT) received an unsolicited bid.”
International Infrastructure Partners, headed by Lutz engineer Jerry Stanley, submitted an unsolicited bid in June to lease the DOT right-of-way so his company could build and operate the 33-mile toll road stretching from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301, just south of Zephyrhills.
The DOT extended the bidding period to Dec. 9 after IIP withdrew it’s original offer in October, citing worries about local political support.