Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said the department and Pasco County will kick its public outreach campaign on the proposed “FL54 Express” toll road into high gear, beginning with Commissioner Kathryn Starkey's town hall meeting to be held Monday at Sunlake High School.
“We know there is a lot of concern and questions from the public — and we recognize all of it,” Prasad said. “We're going to make sure we have a very open process.”
Their first priority will be to educate the public about the projected growth in the State Road 54/56 corridor that could cause the state highway to fail without the addition of more travel lanes. Whether the entire toll road - or some segments of the road — is elevated is still up for discussion.
“For every problem you have multiple options — some are viable and some are not viable,” Prasad said. “But first, we've got to show you there is a problem. We don't want to build a road that's not needed.”
Prasad invited Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker and Commission Chairman Jack Mariano to Tallahassee Tuesday to meet with representatives from Spanish construction giant, OHL, which is bidding to build the state's first privately owned toll road along the 33-mile corridor in southern Pasco. The toll road could eventually link U.S. 19 to U.S. 301 and provide unfettered access to the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.
“Within a month or so, we'll follow with OHL making their presentations on what is feasible,” Prasad said. “They'll be talking about what they think is doable, with pictures, diagrams and layouts — so people can look at it.”
OHL had suggested waiting until late June or July to hold public meetings, but Baker and Mariano said it was important to expedite the process. “I'm glad we're moving it up,” Mariano said. “We want to schedule these before people start leaving town for summer vacation.”
The revised schedule is also response to a grassroots movement that is building momentum. The opposition group, Pasco Fiasco, launched an online petition Monday and so far has more than 375 signatures. It reads, in part: We are homeowners and small business owners who believe that this elevated roadway will adversely impact our quality of life and threaten established businesses.
Mariano is one of two commissioners who has spoken out against the elevated toll-road concept, but he said he had a better comfort level after meeting with Prasad.
“I'm on board with the public education program,” he said. “I'm glad I went. I wanted to make sure we're looking at alternatives, as well. So I felt like it was a very productive meeting.”
Prasad said that if DOT agrees to lease the right-of-way for the toll road, OHL would be required to meet the same engineering standards, including noise mitigation, as any publicly owned road. “They will have to do a noise study, and if noise walls are warranted, then we've got to figure out a way to get them built.”