TALLAHASSEE — State transportation officials accepted a bid Wednesday from private investors who want to build and operate an elevated toll road in southern Pasco County that could change commuting patterns for generations of Suncoast motorists.
But before the first shovel of dirt is turned, the Florida Department of Transportation must negotiate a lease for public right-of-way in the State Road 54/State Road 56 corridor with the bidder, Florida 54 Express.
“We cleared the first hurdle,” said Gerald Stanley, the Lutz engineer who submitted the unsolicited proposal to the Department of Transportation last summer. If built, FL 54 Xpress would be the state’s first toll road built entirely with private dollars. “We’re excited about the possibility that the project will move forward.”
Stanley formed International Infrastructure Partners and teamed up with one of the world’s largest construction companies, OHL, to bid for the Pasco project. 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.
According to the proposal, which wasn’t made public until Wednesday afternoon, the consortium made an initial offer of $1.05 million a year for the duration of the lease. The consortium would negotiate tolling rates and other revenue-sharing proposals with state transportation officials. The initial lease would last 45 years but could be extended to 99 years.
Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development for DOT’s District 7 office in Tampa, said the team has the right credentials and experience, but that lease negotiations could take several months.
“The proposal is very vague,” she said. “The devil is in the details. The first step was deciding is it worth moving forward to negotiate, and it was.”
OHL, founded in Spain more than a century ago, operates 10 toll roads in Spain, Mexico and Peru. It is one of four companies that made the Florida Department of Transportation’s short list to build Orlando’s I-4 Ultimate Project, a $2.5 billion toll road. OHL also won a contract last year to build a toll road in Texas.
“Obviously, it’s a big deal,” Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said. The Wesley Chapel Republican said Florida must rely on the private sector to help the state meet its transportation needs but said local officials need to carefully scrutinize the project. “I’m confident that our county commissioners will look at this thoroughly,” he said.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority has endorsed the project, calling the corridor one of its highest priorities.
The highway is expected to accelerate the development of several planned communities along the S.R. 54 corridor, just as the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway was a catalyst for Brandon.
Stanley said “if everything works out perfectly” construction could start as early as late 2015. But Hunt said that timeline might be unrealistic, especially if the toll road intersects I-75.
“They’re going to want full access to I-75,” she said. “That could take anywhere from two to seven years to get federal approval.”