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Mariano expresses doubts about elevated toll road

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NEW PORT RICHEY — One Pasco commissioner has already come out against the proposed elevated toll road on State Road 54, and now another is rethinking his position on the $2 billion project.

Commission Chairman Jack Mariano told members of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization he’s received emails from people opposing the toll road and none supporting it. “I think I’ve seen a lot of public input already,” he said. “Why go through this whole process when we know our people are telling us we don’t know it’s the right thing.”

After the meeting, he told reporters the actual number of emails he’d received was “between 20 and 30” but he believed each person who wrote him spoke for hundreds of their neighbors. He told members of the grassroots opposition group, Pasco Fiasco, to keep fighting the toll road.

That shouldn’t be a problem. “I’m here to listen. I’m going to learn — and I’m not going away,” New Port Richey resident Barbara Pool said.

About a half-dozen members of the group attended the meeting and spoke against the road. Founder Rich Connors said he’s getting new members each day. “I expect this movement to grow into multiples of thousands in the next couple of months,” he said.

If built, FL54 Express would be Florida’s first privately built and operated toll road.

Lutz engineer Gerald Stanley formed International Infrastructure Partners, and teamed up with one of the world’s largest construction companies, OHL, to build the 33-mile toll road that would link U.S.19 to U.S.301 and provide unfettered access to the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.

The consortium will begin formal negotiations in May with the Florida Department of Transportation officials to lease right-of-way in the entire 33-mile S.R.54/56 corridor. The project is divided into three segments, with the first phase as the segment between the Suncoast Parkway and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

That 10-mile segment creates the “northern loop,” which is critical for the region because it allows motorists from northern Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to access the Suncoast and I-75 without clogging up S.R. 54. Growth Management Administrator Richard Gehring said some sections of road will fail, if they haven’t already. The road is going to have to be elevated over U.S. 41 eventually, even if the private toll road doesn’t get built, he said.

“If the real issue is crossing over the Suncoast, crossing over (U.S 41), crossing over Collier (Parkway) — why are we looking at an entire highway?” Mariano asked. “Why can’t we put together a resolution saying we only support that segment?”

Because the unsolicited bid (from IIP) asked for right-of-way for the entire corridor, Gehring answered.

MPO Director Jim Edwards reminded board members that the county and state already spent $700,000 on studies to support the elevated road concept before IIP submitted its initial bid. The studies found that even if the county widens S.R. 52 and extends Ridge Road to U.S. 41, the traffic demand on the S.R.54 corridor would still justify the toll road.

The company withdrew that bid after panelists from the Urban Land Institute warned Pasco officials against building the toll road. Commissioners reaffirmed their support for the project — as a possible solution — in December. It was only after commissioners voted unanimously for the resolution that IIP and OHL submitted a formal bid to DOT.

Mariano believes that with enough public pressure, toll road opponents could stop the project. “If the company stepped back before, they’ll step back again,” he said.

But Commissioner Ted Schrader said even if OHL pulled its offer off the table, Pasco would still have to figure out a way to move traffic on S.R. 54 — and there aren’t many other options because so much of central Pasco is made up of environmentally protected land.

“Unfortunately, west of I-75, you’ve got a big swamp out there so you can’t build a grid system,” Schrader said. “I’m not sold on this, but we’ve still got to figure out our east-west solution.”

In the meantime, OHL and its partners have offered to meet individually with county commissioners or members of the MPO, according to a new project schedule. The company plans to present its conceptual plan to DOT on March 14 and to the Pasco MPO in late March.

The company will schedule three public meetings in the spring — one each in west, central and east Pasco - and will modify the concept based on input from local officials and the public.

The consortium will bring on a public relations firm to coordinate the public outreach campaign in a few weeks. Stanley said OHL is still doing traffic studies to make sure the project is feasible and trying to narrow down the design concepts it will present.

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