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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Jackson: Toll road didn’t come as advertised

Everything now having been said and done regarding the proposed and, apparently, never-to-be elevated toll road linking east and west Pasco County, let me say this about that: I still like the idea of it.

Like the concept. Like the linkage. Like the notion of taking several thousand cars off the surface roads and charging them for the privilege. Like the plan of dedicating an eastbound and westbound lane for true bus rapid transit. Like that the entirety of it was to have been supported on architecturally pleasing pillars, leaving open air and intact communities below.

Like that it wouldn’t have required the acquisition of much right of way. Like that it would have alleviated pressure on Pasco County and the Florida Department of Transportation — and, accordingly, taxpayers — to erect expensive flyovers at State Road 54 and U.S. 41. Like also that it was to have been fabricated elsewhere, then assembled on-site along the lines of a magnificent Lego set.

Like the construction jobs it would have created. Like the ease of passage its completion would have produced. Like that it would effectively close the Tampa-area bypass loop, giving motorists in west Pasco and northern Pinellas County a brisk-moving alternative to reach the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.

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Most of all, I liked that the consortium proposed the project as an entirely private enterprise. In a state, and especially a region, whose failure to satisfy transportation demands largely hinges on scant available dollars, this was found money, about $2 billion.

This was mightily important if true. On the night two months ago of the raucous town hall meeting at Sunlake High School, I asked Richard Gehring, Pasco County’s planning director, if the consortium really had figured out how to create and sustain a positive cash flow. His precise answer eludes me now, but it amounted to this: It would seem so.

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In the planner’s defense, he had not seen the fine print of what International Infrastructure Partners LLC was in fact proposing. Neither had DOT officials until a fateful meeting with the partners on May 1. Only then did the proverbial cat escape the bag.

As reported first by the Tribune’s Laura Kinsler, there was no scenario under which IIP — which includes OHL Infrastructure, a giant Spanish construction company with expertise in private toll roads — could proceed without a substantial input of tax dollars.

Cue Emily Litella: “Ooooo. That’s different. Never mind.”

And that was that. Game over, announced Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad. Time to “hit the reset button” and entertain more traditional projects. This is exactly as it should be. For all that remains intriguing and forward-looking about an elevated toll road across Pasco’s urbanizing southern corridor, the only feature recommending it just now was the notion that it would be privately financed. When that proved false, there was no reason to go further.

It didn’t hurt that IIP’s cash-for-concrete codicil got DOT out of a prickly public relations bind. Plainly, the no-go decision delighted Pasco Fiasco, a grass-roots bunch that rallied opposition that was energetic and widespread, if based largely on not-in-my-backyard sensitivities. Sensing the sort of wind shift that accompanies tropical weather events, Pasco County Commissioners Henry Wilson and Jack Mariano had already renounced their earlier, tepid endorsements, and Kathryn Starkey, the road’s most reliable cheerleader, moderated her support.

Nevermind that arguments against the toll road often boiled down to this: If you like it so much, buy my house. What remains now promises to be enduring transportation gridlock interrupted by periods of aggravating road-widening construction.

Something to remember the next time you’re shopping at The Shops at Wiregrass and get that sudden urge to dine by the Tarpon Springs sponge docks.

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