NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco commissioners on Tuesday gave their blessing to a feasibility study linked to a proposed toll road on State Roads 54 and 56 in south Pasco County, but they couldn't agree on whether to back the project without more information and public input.
The approval, at the request of state transportation officials, came a week before developers are due to submit proposals to build and operate a privately run toll road along the highways.
The project, which has yet to be approved, would run about 33 miles and link U.S. 19 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Interstate 75 and possibly U.S. 301. Much of it would be elevated.
It has drawn tentative support from state transportation officials who argue it would expand the highway system while involving limited taxpayer dollars. It could also offer a windfall in the form of right-of-way leases.
But before moving forward, transportation officials wanted to clarify whether the county backed the project, or at least the next logical step: a feasibility study.
Commissioners said they backed the study, voting 5-0 in support, but on the larger question of whether to wholeheartedly embrace the project, they were divided.
Most said they needed more information and wanted to know whether it made more sense to build an elevated toll road elsewhere, possibly along Ridge Road.
"We haven't had a public session on this and we haven't had any buy-in from the public," Commissioner Ted Schrader said.
Commissioners said they have heard from Pasco residents who are equally concerned. Some said they believe the project is already approved while others said they feared it will result in soaring overpasses that will divide south Pasco.
County development director Richard Gehring gave commissioners an overview. He suggested the road could be constructed on pilings to allow roads, sidewalks and bike lanes to pass underneath. It could allow for managed bus lanes, helping to solve public transportation needs.
Officials have debated the idea since June when a development group called International Infrastructure Partners submitted a proposal to state transportation officials to build and operate an elevated toll road in south Pasco.
After strong support initially, enthusiasm waned when the Urban Land Institute visited the county in early October and suggested officials not proceed with the elevated toll road. The institute hasn't yet issued a final report but in initial remarks noted that many cities are tearing down their elevated highways for aesthetic reasons. Hearing this, some officials said it might be better to step back and re-evaluate the idea.
International Infrastructure withdrew its proposal shortly after, citing an "unfavorable" political climate. The company said it would resubmit its plan in December. Proposals are due Monday.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.