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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Turnout big for toll road discussion

ODESSA — The 100 or so west Pasco residents at Thursday night’s town hall meeting in Odessa learned about plans for new bike trails, parks, a library and developments coming to their area, but most came for one reason: to learn more about the proposed FL 54 Express.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, who hosted the town hall, has been a vocal supporter of plans for a private company to build an elevated toll road in the State Road 54/56 corridor. She said wasn’t surprised by the big turnout. “That toll road is a big unknown to a lot of people,” she said.

Lutz engineer Gerald Stanley formed International Infrastructure Partners and teamed up with one of the world’s largest construction companies, OHL, to bid for the Pasco project. They’re currently in negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation to lease right-of-way in the corridor for the toll road. The 33-mile toll road would link U.S. 19 to U.S. 301 and provide unfettered access to the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.

No one from the consortium attended the town hall. Instead, the county’s growth management administrator, Richard Gehring, gave a detailed presentation to explain how the project came about and why it was needed. He also tried to assuage fears that the highway would look “like something out of the French Connection.”

Gehring said he gave a similar briefing at a community meeting in Longleaf last December, but residents there who live next to Starkey Ranch “acted like nothing was ever going to happen to that cow pasture.”

But, in fact, properties such as Starkey Ranch, Mitchell Ranch, Bexley Ranch and Behnke Ranch are already approved for 14,000 new homes and more than 7 million square feet of offices and shopping centers. County Administrator Michele Baker displayed a poster with a pink bubble over each future development. “Those pink people are coming,” she said.

Most of those people get up in the morning and drive south, Gehring said. In addition, commuters from north Pinellas, Lutz and New Tampa drive north to S.R.54 to access the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.

Gehring said some segments of the corridor would have to be 20 lanes wide to accommodate the future traffic needs. “If we don’t get a system where the interstate and the Suncoast and U.S. 19 have an east-west connection, the system will break down,” he said.

Then he showed a photo that drew gasps from the audience. “I don’t think any of you have ever driven on a 20-lane road — but that’s what it looks like,” Gehring said. “OK? You don’t want to drive on this road.”

He said the combination of six ground-level lanes of traffic with a four-lane elevated toll road is the most efficient and least expensive way to prevent future gridlock — especially if a private investment group pays to build the toll road.

“We think it’s a win-win,” Gehring said.

His presentation won over several skeptics who attended the town hall meeting to learn more about the project. Duane Milford, a civil engineer who lives in Odessa south of the county line, said he’s one of those Hillsborough residents who uses S.R. 54 to get to the interstate.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was kind of a crazy idea,” Milford said. “But now it sounds like it could work. I had no idea how serious they were about it.”

Joe and Lidia Cascio said they, too, were swayed by the presentation. “We live in Gray Hawk, right off of S.R.54,” Lidia Cascio said. “It’s definitely going to impact us the most, but I think it’s needed.”

Others were harder to impress. One woman, who declined to give her name, was convinced the government would try to condemn her home in order to build the elevated highway.

“I’m a member of the Sierra Club, and we’re going to fight this,” she said.

Gehring tried to quell other complaints that the road would generate too much noise.

“All roads will generate noise,” he said. “The side walls of the elevated structure will stop the noise flow, and that would deflect noise better than if the road was widened.”

He also said the truck traffic wouldn’t be allowed on the elevated structure, which would reduce the noise. But when pressed on the truck issue, he said the Florida Department of Transportation doesn’t allow heavy trucks on any toll roads except for the new I-4 connector, which was built specifically for trucks.

DOT Spokeswoman Kris Carson said the agency and Florida Turnpike Authority have no such policy and that trucks are allowed on all Turnpike toll roads.

Other residents questioned why Pasco would move forward with the elevated toll road concept despite the objections from planning experts at the Urban Land Institute. “We just respectfully disagree,” Gehring said, noting that the panel’s transportation expert missed the Pasco trip last year.

Russell Scherker said he didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the toll road before Thursday’s town hall. “I just wanted to know what it was all about,” he said. “I’m still undecided. It sounds like the county needs it. Maybe it doesn’t seem like it’s needed now, but maybe in the future.”

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