LAND O' LAKES — All it took was one mention of the projected “20-lane highway” along State Road 54 for Pasco officials to lose control of their town hall meeting Monday night.
Opponents of the proposed elevated toll road took over. They booed. They yelled. They demanded to be heard.
“Why are you dumping this on Pasco County?” one man asked.
More than 400 people crowded into the bleachers at Sunlake High School to watch the presentation, including Robyn and Danilo Felix, who postponed their anniversary dinner to attend. “That's how important this is to us,” she said.
A handful walked out — frustrated with the hour-long presentation that touched on everything from the county's strategic plan, demographic data and employment trends. Richard Gehring, the county's strategic policy administrator, took the brunt of abuse from toll road opponents.
“This roadway doesn't occur in a vacuum,” Gehring said. “It comes in a community that's growing from 500,000 people to 600,000.”
But the moment he showed the photo of a 20-lane superhighway, the crowd started yelling “Scare Tactic!”
“Name all the places in the country that have a 20-lane road!” one man shouted.
The Florida Department of Transportation is negotiating with a consortium headed by the Spanish firm OHL to build and operate the four-lane toll road within the State Road 54/56 corridor between U.S. 19 and U.S. 301. The first segment would stretch from the Suncoast Parkway to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and provide unfettered access to Interstate 75.
County Administrator Michele Baker and Commission Chairman Jack Mariano met last week with DOT Secretary Ananth Presad and officials from OHL/IIP. The company, which is bidding to lease the state right-of-way for the toll road, agreed to present its concept to the public starting in April — rather than mid-summer.
Monday's town hall was the first of six public outreach sessions hosted by Pasco County and the FDOT, scheduled to educate residents about the future traffic projections that could cause the state highway to fail without the addition of more lanes.
The campaign was also a response to a grass-roots movement that is building momentum. The opposition group Pasco Fiasco launched an online petition last week and is approaching its goal of collecting 1,000 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.
“Let me tell you, we are united against this elevated toll road,” Pasco Fiasco member Jason Amerson said. “The people in these communities don't want you gambling away our property values in the name of progress.”
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said there's no guarantee the consortium will move forward with the project, or that FDOT will agree to their terms. She scheduled the town hall in the hope that opponents would “get a better understanding of some of the challenges all of us face.”
With or without the elevated toll road, Pasco has to plan for what's coming: traffic congestion from 14,000 new single family homes approved for construction on the S.R. 54 corridor and another 10,000 residential units at Wiregrass Ranch.
County Planner Matthew Armstrong outlined each of the new communities planned for the corridor — some of which are already under construction — including Starkey Ranch, Long Lake Ranch and Trinity.
“That's a lot of people we have to manage, and still try to protect quality of life,” he said. “We're talking about thousands of homes — entire towns — that we have to plan for.”
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 the final report released Monday, 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.
“Building an elevated freeway in Pasco over State Roads 54/56 could create significant barriers to high-quality development in that corridor,” panelists wrote.
They recommended the county “defer for a reasonable time” the private toll road. “Instead, the county should pursue a regional collaboration that could both enhance funding opportunities and configure different physical solutions,” they wrote. “Proceeding with the elevated freeway before pursuing the regional MPO configuration would foreclose possible superior solutions to the east–west congestion challenge. In the meantime, the continued buildup of congestion may spawn more public support for transit solutions.”
Pasco County and the DOT have been studying the proposed toll road for two years, but timing for the project was accelerated last summer when the state received an unsolicited bid for the 33-mile toll road. The state agency agreed to enter negotiations with the consortium in January, but the negotiating phase won't start until the bidders complete their feasibility study.