NEW PORT RICHEY — Toll road opponents filled the Pasco Commission chambers Tuesday and two dozen spoke against the proposed elevated highway in what was the first real show of force by the grassroots “Pasco Fiasco” movement.
“We are just a small sampling of this community who oppose this road - and we would appreciate more opportunities to be heard,” DeShon Hodge said.
The group is hoping to persuade a majority of commissioners to put a halt to the $2 billion project. The Florida Department of Transportation is negotiating with a consortium headed by the Spanish firm OHL to build and operate the four-lane toll road within the State Road 54/46 corridor between U.S.19 and U.S.301. The first segment would stretch from the Suncoast Parkway to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and provide unfettered access to Interstate 75.
But DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad said he would end the negotiations if the county commission objects to the project. So far, two commissioners have spoken out against the toll road. Prasad wants a Pasco delegation to travel to Tallahassee next week to meet with him and members of OHL specifically to discuss the company’s public outreach plans.
County Administrator Michele Baker said she will attend the meeting, along with Commissioners Jack Mariano and Kathryn Starkey.
According to OHL’s new schedule, the public meetings, originally scheduled for April and May, would be pushed back to June and July. “That’s too late,” Baker said.
OHL has scheduled a follow-up meeting with Prasad and other DOT officials for March 14 to discuss, among other things, “general feedback on political impacts of certain concepts.”
The opponents say the proposed road would devastate the neighborhoods and small businesses along S.R.54. They worried about noise, sinkholes and years of inconvenience because of construction in the roadway. They worry that the elevated road would harm their property values.
“We need the elevated toll road like we need a hole in the head,” Donna Collier said.
Some shared horror stories of places where they had lived. Tracy Potter, a former Denver, Colo. resident, said the neighborhood under an elevated freeway struggled with crime and gang violence. “I don’t want that for my family, and I don’t want that for my neighbors,” she said.
Others opposed the idea of a foreign company having the ability to control tolls for 45 years. “We don’t want our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren to have to pay for this,” Ann Grivas said.
Starkey said she appreciates their concerns, but said most of their fears are unfounded. “I heard a lot of misinformation today,” she said.
One challenge the county has had combating such statements is that no one from Pasco is on the negotiating team, and none of the commissioners has met with OHL. That changes this week: each commissioner will meet individually with DOT officials and representatives from OHL Thursday. The project schedule defines these as “meet and greets” designed to help commissioners answer questions from their constituents. “There will be no discussion of concepts at these meetings,” it reads.
County Public Information Director Doug Tobin also installed a link on the county’s website where people can find more information about the project and read the entire bid proposal from FL54 Express.
In other business, commissioners voted 4-1 to award a $1.9 million contract to add two turf lacrosse fields and parking adjacent to the Wesley Chapel District Park.