NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco leaders should put the brakes on a private elevated toll road in the State Road 54 corridor that would link U.S. 19 to Interstate 75 and ultimately span the county, a panel of outside experts says.
Instead, they said, the county should work with other agencies in the region for an overall solution to traffic congestion. That should include creating more opportunities to walk and use public transit, decreasing the need for more cars.
"Pasco has been doing its own planning through its own Metropolitan Planning Organization," said Bill Lawrence, a Massachusetts consultant who specializes in management of transportation-related property. "We think this is a regional issue."
Lawrence was a member of a panel put together by the Urban Land Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advises governments on development projects and quality of life issues. Other panelists included experts in economic development, land use, real estate, marketing and communication.
The panel spends four days compiling research by touring the county and interviewing stakeholders. The fifth day, members present their findings, which are compiled in a detailed written report sent about two to three months later.
The presentation Friday at the West Pasco Government Center represents an early rough draft.
This marks the second time Pasco County has used the services of the Urban Land Institute, which cost $125,000. The first visit was five years ago, when county officials wanted advice on how to lure high-wage jobs.
The institute's first report was not entirely complimentary. It recommended consistency in land use rules and a new way of marketing the county by carving it into separate geographic areas.
As a result, the county overhauled its patchwork of land use rules and created five market areas, with urban development to be concentrated along U.S. 19 and State Roads 54 and 56. The county also adopted incentives to steer development toward the urban areas.
The most recent visit was intended as a followup to tell county officials where to go next in their quest to make Pasco a "premier county" on the same level as Hillsborough and Pinellas, with high-paying jobs, as well as enhanced recreation and livable residential areas.
But Pasco has many obstacles to overcome if it wants to achieve that status, the panel noted. Chief among them is an oversupply of approved development that won't be absorbed for the next 75 years.
"Approved growth far exceeds the county's absorption capacity," co-chairman Charles Long said.
The panel also recommended raising the gas tax and doubling the tourism tax from 2 to 4 percent to fund efforts to develop ecotourism and shift money to amenities such as parks and libraries. County commissioners rejected both proposals this year.
As for the proposed toll road, which a private investment group made an unsolicited bid to build, the panel said to explore other options first.
Some cities are actually working to get rid of elevated freeways, Long said.
Richard Gehring, the county's development director, said Pasco's initial plan was for light rail to connect to southern counties, but when Hillsborough voters rejected the measure in a referendum, Pasco leaders were forced to look at alternatives. The elevated road proposal is being handled by the state Department of Transportation.
"We try to be ahead of the curve," he said.
Overall, leaders praised the panel's work.
"It's a little bit of a dose of castor oil," said Michael Cox, a former county commissioner who pushed for the first ULI visit. He compared the county to a ship that needs to be turned to reach its destination.
"This puts us in the right direction," he said.