Wednesday, November 22, 2017
News Roundup

Developer submits plan for elevated toll road in south Pasco

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NEW PORT RICHEY — A development group submitted a new proposal this week to build and operate an elevated toll road in south Pasco County after pulling the idea in October.

International Infrastructure Partners, working with a related company called Florida 54 Express, submitted its plan after the Florida Department of Transportation requested developers' ideas for a toll road on State Roads 54 and 56.

The two companies' proposal was the only one submitted by Monday's deadline.

International Infrastructure, backed by an affiliate of financial services company Guggenheim Partners, submitted an initial draft to transportation officials in June but withdrew it after county commissioners expressed skepticism and questions arose about whether the road would allow buses.

Transportation planners are analyzing the proposal's feasibility and will decide by Jan. 8 whether to proceed with more detailed studies and public hearings.

"We'll know in a couple of weeks what happens when we go through the process," Gerald H. Stanley of Lutz, a partner in the project, said Monday.

Stanley said construction could start as soon as three years from now, depending on state approvals. Toll rates would adjust depending on traffic, but he said it was too early to say what those rates could be.

The idea, which comes as state officials are looking to partner with developers on toll projects, has been embraced as way to expand the highway system without burdening taxpayers with construction costs. "We really are excited because this project is needed but currently is unfunded and it could be five to 10 years before we can get the funding in place just to do one segment," Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said. "Here we have a company that is willing to take on that funding."

The project would be built entirely through private funds and privately managed afterward, marking the first private toll road in Florida.

It would access right-of-way along the SR 54/56 corridor and connect U.S. 19 to the Suncoast Parkway and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard or Interstate 75. It might also expand eastward to U.S. 301.

Locally, however, officials remain uncertain about the project. Pasco's director of planning, Richard Gehring, is a supporter. He said an elevated road — similar to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway — would address future congestion without having to resort to a major widening of local highways. It would also allow for buses, provide an employment boost and spark development in some areas near the road.

County commissioners, however, have been slow to embrace it. Last week, commissioners passed a resolution in support of it but only as a measure to support further study by the Department of Transportation.

"As I have said at every meeting this topic has come up, I am not in support of elevated toll roads," Commissioner Henry Wilson said in an email Monday. "We (the board) are waiting for the feasibility study to come back from FDOT. Once the study comes back and the public meetings are done, my position might change, but I doubt it." Wilson is set to hold a town hall meeting about the project Wednesday Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. at the Longleaf development in Trinity.

Commissioners Jack Mariano and Kathyrn Starkey said they are pleased state officials will continue to study the road, but they need more information before deciding to back it.

Starkey added the state should hold public hearings to address misconceptions. "I heard from one man who asked if this meant he wouldn't be able to drive on 54 anymore," he said.

Commissioner Ted Schrader was undecided as well. Among other things, he said he wanted to know whether the road could be built along Ridge Road instead of SR 54.

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