Monday, Apr 21, 2014
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Opposition develops for proposed Pasco elevated toll road

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TRINITY — In the late 1980s, Lutz residents launched an all out campaign to block Hillsborough County’s plan to build an east-west road through their community. They used bumper stickers, a music video and a small army of protesters to kill the project.

Now a quarter century later, Longleaf resident Rich Connors is hoping to unite the neighborhoods along southern Pasco’s State Road 54 corridor to fight the proposed elevated toll road. It all started with a letter to the editor, published in The Tampa Tribune a few Sundays ago and has evolved into a grassroots movement, complete with its own website, www.pascofiasco.com, Facebook page and Twitter handle.

“The level of awareness is so low,” Connors said. “Probably only 10 percent of the people who would be affected even know about it. When I tell people about it, nobody says, ‘Hey, this is a good idea.’ ”

The movement is growing despite efforts by local government officials to persuade residents that FL54 Express is the best option to deal with projected traffic on the corridor. “What we’re seeing is there’s at least 20,000 homes in the communities along S.R. 54, so we’re just scratching the surface,” Connors said.

Stone Gate resident Jason Amerson said he knew nothing about the proposed toll road until he ran into his homeowners association president last week at the grocery store. Since then he’s been knocking on doors, sending emails and handing out flyers. He even hosted a community meeting to rally his neighbors.

Like Connors, he’s concerned about noise, light pollution and lower property values. “You can hear traffic from my house already,” he said. “I live in the back of the neighborhood. There are some people in my neighborhood who would be able to see it from their windows.”

All those emails are beginning to chip away at the Pasco commissioners’ support for the project. Commissioners Ted Schrader and Jack Mariano said their inboxes are “blowing up” with emails — and they’re 100 percent negative. Schrader said he hasn’t seen a groundswell of opposition like this since the proposed Sportsplex project.

“I just suspect that before too long we’re going to have a room full of people with red T-shirts,” Schrader said.

The $2 billion FL54 Express would be the state’s first privately built and managed 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.

Lutz engineer Gerald Stanley formed International Infrastructure Partners, and teamed up with one of the world’s largest construction companies, OHL, are currently negotiating with the Florida Department of Transportation for the leasing rights in the S.R. 54/56 corridor.

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.

“I’m aware that there’s some opposition,” Stanley said. “We will talk to them at the proper time and present our side. Obviously, we think it’s a good project, but I’m not going to get into an argument with them.”

Debbie Hunt, the DOT’s director of transportation development, said the public outreach would begin while the two sides are negotiating the lease. The agency expects opposition anytime it considers a project of this scale. “There’s always going to be some for it and some against,” she said. “It just depends on which side has the most.”

She wanted to make one thing clear: the project won’t move forward without the blessing of Pasco County commissioners.

So far only one commissioner, Henry Wilson, has come out against the project. “I think it would be a huge mistake,” he said. “I don’t believe we need it.”

Hunt said it’s critical that the agency, the bidders and the county present the same message. That hasn’t always been the case.

For example, the county’s growth administrator told a group of Odessa residents that the elevated lanes wouldn’t allow heavy truck traffic, which would reduce the noise impact. But Stanley and Hunt both said no decisions have been made yet regarding trucks.

“Generally, when we build express lanes, we don’t allow trucks,” Hunt said. “But if it’s going to be part of the Florida Turnpike system and connect with the Suncoast Parkway, then it would be open to everybody. It hasn’t been decided yet.”

Connors also take exception with the county’s position that S.R. 54 would have to be 20 lanes wide to accommodate the future traffic needs. Growth and Development Administrator Richard Gehring, who has made several public presentations, frequently uses a photo of a superhighway as a worst-case scenario. Connors calls it a scare tactic.

“I’m from New Jersey — and we don’t have any 20-lane highways up there,” he said. “Every time he pulls that out, he loses credibility.”

The county’s long range transportation plan actually says “segments” of the roadway are projected to need “between eight and 20 total travel lanes” to satisfy the projected demand. County Administrator Michele Baker said the problem is that there aren’t any other east-west roads in the region to absorb the future traffic demands because of geography, environmental issues and poor planning.

Baker agreed there’s been an inference that the entire road would have to be 20 lanes. “But there’s also an inference that the entire toll road would have to be elevated — and that’s not necessarily the case, either,” she said. It’s been a challenge to dispel rumors without really knowing how the road would look and function.

“We’re playing catch up,” she said. “We have an obligation to protect the quality of life for our residents, and when they look at the current state of things, they see it’s not so bad. We have to plan for the future.”

That future includes 14,000 new single family homes approved for construction in communities along the S.R. 54 corridor.

Panelists from the Urban Land Institute, who toured the county last October, said Pasco officials are overestimating their projected 2025 population by more than 50,000 people. In a draft report, the panelists strongly oppose the elevated highway concept, saying it would promote “highway oriented development” rather than “transit oriented development,” which is the county’s stated goal.

In the draft, panelists write that allowing “the continued buildup of congestion may spawn more public support for transit solutions.”

Baker said she expects to get the final ULI report by the end of the month. She scheduled a workshop on March 4 to discuss the report, but commissioners said they want a separate session during Thursday’s Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting to focus exclusively on the proposed toll road.

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