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Chief planner pushes toll lanes for Pasco highways

WESLEY CHAPEL — He admits it's ambitious.

But if Pasco County's chief planner has his way, the State Road 54/56 corridor will have toll lanes within the next three years.

"If we don't hit this window, we're stupid," said Richard Gehring, who heads the county's growth management department. Interest rates and construction costs are low, he said. Take advantage of that now before the county shakes off the Great Recession.

Gehring made his pitch Tuesday afternoon during an event aimed at developers, engineers and bankers from across the Tampa Bay area. The group was treated to a chartered bus tour of the corridor, from Little Road near Trinity to the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel. Also along for the ride were Florida Secretary of Transportation Ananth Prasad and Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA.)

"It's aggressive, I know," Gehring told the group of close to 100 as he pointed out the congestion at intersections such as U.S. 41 as well as the future home of financial giant T. Rowe Price and future satellite campus of Raymond James. He peppered his talk with statistics about how Pasco is the 12th-largest county in the state and the seventh largest in growth since the last U.S. Census. He also highlighted recent changes in the land use code and lower mobility fees that create a climate that encourages development.

However, Gehring said the one glitch that remains is smooth transportation. He said many intersections already operate at an "F" grade service level.

With Hillsborough voters soundly rejecting a tax for light rail in 2010, he said, managed lanes seem to be the best solution to unclogging roads in Pasco.

A study of future needs showed that State Road 54 would need to be expanded to 16 to 20 lanes to accommodate growth. The county had approved 23 million square feet of entitlements along the highway, which falls in its market area that encourages high-density development.

"We needed to come up with a Plan B," Gehring said.

He envisions the corridor eventually becoming a "northern loop" in the Tampa Bay area, much like Atlanta's Perimeter Road. The lanes, which could be elevated and in the center of the highway, would also accommodate express buses.

The loop, which would connect from the Suncoast Parkway to Interstate 75, is ranked No. 5 on TBARTA's top 10 list of regional projects.

Drivers would be charged a toll to take the express lanes, with prices varying with the time of day. Rush hours would cost more.

But who would bear the startup costs?

Gehring and Prasad stressed the importance of private investment to pay for the system, as public revenues shrink and the state struggles to maintain existing infrastructure.

"You've got to start thinking big," said Prasad, citing Orlando's I-4 express lanes and SunRail projects.

"Bring your skin to the game." State funding triggers burdensome regulations and studies and slows the process when time is of the essence.

"We want to go on the offense in transportation" he said. He noted that I-75 is to be widened, and officials hope to build the second phase of the Suncoast Parkway that would run through Citrus County.

Managed toll lanes have been controversial in the past, although states are starting to embrace them as an option to traditional gas tax-funded projects.

Critics deride them as "Lexus lanes" to suggest they're used by wealthy drivers and ignore average citizens' needs.

As of March, 10 states, including Georgia, Minnesota and Washington, operate or are adding managed lanes. Florida operates toll lanes on a stretch of I-95 near Miami. The concept originated 20 years ago in southern California.

The tolls are collected electronically using overhead gantries and devices like SunPass.

As traffic picks up on the nontoll lanes, typically around rush hour, toll rates on the managed lanes go up. They can be waived for car pools and buses.

Developer Stew Gibbons asked whether there was any hope for legislative support.

Prasad responded candidly. "We don't have money," he said.

Clifford advised the Tampa Bay area to put aside regional disputes and cite the same top priorities to lawmakers, which is what happened in the Orlando area.

"Be consistent in your message," he said.

Chief planner pushes toll lanes for Pasco highways 10/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 7:00pm]
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