NEW PORT RICHEY — New Jersey transplant Rich Connors doesn't see eye-to-eye with Pasco County planning director Richard Gehring when it comes to a proposed toll road.
Gehring envisions a sleek, elevated structure to whisk commuters across the county — a solution to future congestion that will spare Pasco from having to build a 20-lane highway, akin to Interstate 405 in Southern California, as housing developments spring up.
Connors, however, pictures blight — homes and businesses losing value because they sit under the shadow of an imposing and noisy 33-mile overpass stretching the length of State Road 54.
So as Gehring and other county officials visited communities over the past two months to answer questions and make their case for the state project, called FL 54 Express, Connors was busy launching an effort against it.
"I've never been an active person politically, but this is really striking home," he said.
In early December, after attending a presentation by officials at the Longleaf development where he lives, Connors started sending emails and speaking with friends and neighbors, warning that the road could erode their quality of life.
By January, he had launched PascoFiasco.com and the @nosuperhighway Twitter. Along with a friend, he also started a Pasco Fiasco Facebook page.
"I expect that things will change, that growth will happen and that nothing will ever stay the same, but we don't need a super highway," said Connors, 55, who relocated from New Jersey's Bergen County in 2011.
Along with about 20 like-minded citizens who call themselves Pasco Fiasco, a derisive reference to the project, Connors says he's trying to spread the word. So far, he says, the group has reached about 150 people, mostly in Longleaf.
For now, the group's strategy is to contact communities via email and at meetings, urge them to oppose the road and visit the website. From there, he wants to create a campaign of citizen opposition — scores of residents contacting county commissioners and showing up at meetings to speak against the project.
"We need to build a coalition and also get businesses involved," he said.
Aiding in the effort, among others, is Laura Bech, a Longleaf resident and local real estate agent. Bech, 51, said she learned about the project at the same time as Connors.
"We're not anywhere near the point where we need something like this," Bech said. "I'm hearing people say they're moving if this comes in. Neighborhoods will become neglected and homes will become rentals. I just don't think this is the best place to put it and I'm not sure we need it."
Privately financed and overseen by the state's transportation department, the project will not move forward unless Pasco commissioners back it. Department Secretary Ananth Prasad has said the department will not allow the project to proceed if Pasco does not support it.
Gehring, the county's planning director, says he doesn't object to the group opposing the road.
"Debate is part of democracy," he says.
But he does dispute the group's belief about whether the road is needed. Thousands of new houses have already been approved and many more are coming in future years, he said. Without an elevated highway, the state and county will be forced to continually widen S.R. 54.
Because of growth and with few east-west routes linking U.S. 19, the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75, the highway could eventually grow to 20 lanes. Picture U.S. 19, but bigger and with massive overpasses at key intersections.
An elevated road makes sense when considering the alternative, said Gehring.
"Is it better to live next to a 20-lane highway?" he said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.