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Officials get earful at town hall meeting over toll road plan

LAND O'LAKES — Angry residents made their voices heard at a town hall meeting Monday about a proposed toll road in south Pasco.

The meeting didn't start that way, though.

Like previous meetings about the road, the first hour consisted of a slide presentation, a series of discussions touching on historical and anticipated growth patterns, and trends in housing, employment and transportation. Then something happened not seen at two previous meetings.

When Pasco planning director Richard Gehring mentioned that 12 to 20 lanes would be required on State Road 54 because of anticipated growth, the crowd roared back, yelling, booing and clapping.

"Scare tactics," yelled one man in the crowd, which had gathered on bleachers at the Sunlake High School gymnasium.

"This is a town hall meeting," yelled another. "Let the people talk."

Finally, the meeting was opened to the public and, one by one, folks lined up 30 deep to address the officials.

Much of the criticism was leveled at them.

"The presentation was very demeaning," Land O'Lakes resident Susie Hoeller said, leading off the comments.

Another speaker, Paul Zalon of Trinity, blamed officials for allowing unrestrained growth, thereby requiring more roads.

"You are approving all of these communities and shopping centers without any thought," he said. "Transportation is a regional problem. Why are you dumping it all on Pasco?"

But most the talk seemed aimed at sending a message: Don't build it here.

"These people are invested in this community," said Jason Amerson, summing up many in the crowd. "We don't want you gambling away our property rights in the name of so-called progress."

The state Department of Transportation is charged with reviewing and approving the project. It's seeking support from Pasco before it agrees to lease right of way to the project's backers — a consortium that includes a New York investment bank, a Spanish construction company and a local engineer, Gerald Stanley.

Called FL Express 54, the project would be the first in Florida built and operated by a private company.

Initially, the elevated highway would stretch from Interstate 75 to the Suncoast Parkway, but later would be expanded from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301, tying into the Suncoast Parkway, U.S. 41 and I-75.

The project has drawn scores of detractors, including a citizens ad-hoc group, Pasco Fiasco. The group has launched a website, a Facebook page and recently an online petition that as of Monday had more than 800 signatures opposing the project. The site says it's aiming for 1,000.

Late Monday, the Urban Land Institute released a study that also leveled some criticism at the proposal. It did not advise against the toll road altogether, but it questioned the timing of the project and suggested that other regional options, including public transportation, might become available in the future.

The DOT also has public hearings planned for June and July.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Officials get earful at town hall meeting over toll road plan 03/10/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 10, 2014 10:46pm]
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