Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014
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DOT official close to pulling plug on Pasco toll road

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— Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad says he is close to pulling the plug on a controversial toll road project across southern Pasco County.

“We’re at a point where I don’t think the project looks very promising,” Prasad told The Tampa Tribune.

“Just because it’s a private proposal, you don’t want to make a bad decision. At the end of the day, the project and the project’s finances should drive the decision and that’s ultimately what’s driving the decision.”

The Florida Department of Transportation has been in negotiations since January with a consortium headed by the Spanish construction company OHL to build and operate an elevated toll road over State Road 54. If approved, it would be the state’s first private toll road and would have linked U.S. 19 and U.S. 301.

Prasad said he met last Thursday with OHL representatives, who presented various options for the road in an effort to respond to overwhelming public opposition to the project. That’s when the firm said it could not build the project without taxpayer dollars.

“We asked them to look at different scenarios, and each scenario it looks like the state’s going to have to do something,” Prasad said. “If that’s the case, then it’s probably better to hit the reset button.”

Prasad said he wanted to touch base one last time with OHL to make sure he didn’t misunderstand anything. The firm gave a detailed presentation, complete with design sketches and project budgets, but did not leave any documents with the DOT.

Prasad said they discussed building only the 10-mile segment between the Suncoast Parkway and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, or building the road on the ground with flyovers at the busiest intersections.

“All those things are workable, but the big thing I come back to is this proposal was submitted to the department to say the private sector would be able to bring equity to build, operate and maintain this facility with no taxpayer dollars,” he said. “That is, as we peel the onion back, turning out not to be the case. And if that’s not the case, then I’m not so sure we want to go forward with this project. If the state’s going to put equity in this, then we would go through a different approach.”

Pasco County Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said he is “absolutely delighted that this is the end of the elevated toll road.” He praised neighborhood groups, particularly the grassroots Pasco Fiasco group, for speaking with a strong and unified voice to stop the project.

“It’s gratifying,” founder Rich Connors said. “It’s nice to see a grassroots type of thing that really came from nothing to have such a huge victory. It’s the hugest of the huge.”

Prasad vowed to continue working with officials from the region to address its transportation needs, but future improvements to S.R. 54 would go through a traditional “bottom up” approach. He hasn’t shut the door on public-private-partnerships to finance future transportation projects.

“We created a climate in Florida that we’re open to these sort of proposals,” he said. “But hopefully we’ve been able to demonstrate to Pasco County that just because we’re open, we’re still going to be very good stewards of our taxpayers’ interests. That if it doesn’t make sense, we are capable of saying no.”

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