Officials question road recommendations for Pasco's southern corridor

The county mulls task force suggestions for the SR 54/56 corridor.

Published June 16 2016
Updated June 16 2016

NEW PORT RICHEY — Figuring out how to move east-west traffic along Pasco County's southern corridor is facing a new obstacle — incredulity.

"I want to be sure that is the recommendation of the task force and not the staff or (the Florida Department of Transportation)," County Commissioner Ted Schrader said.

Fellow Commissioner Jack Mariano was even more blunt.

"Everything I see here is about the toll road," he said. "We're going to get the same explosion we got two or three years ago when the people say, 'We don't want it.' "

Their reactions came last week as the Metropolitan Planning Organization considered recommendations from a pair of citizen task forces on future transportation options along the State Road 54 and State Road 56 corridor from Trinity to Wesley Chapel.

Many of the half-dozen recommendations focused on elevated intersections or, in one instance, an elevated highway above the entire corridor, most of which would carry tolls for motorists. The two task forces, representing east and west Pasco, also included a no-build alternative. It was the top choice among the eastside task force.

But commissioners and elected city officials, sitting as transportation planners, couldn't escape the memory of an unsolicited bid from a private company in 2013 to build and operate a $2 billion elevated toll road across the entire corridor. It drew bitter public opposition, and the idea died a year later after the private company acknowledged it would need public subsidies to make the project work.

So, the county assembled the task forces in 2015 to begin the planning process again, in anticipation of having to include some alternative in the next update to its long-range transportation plan. Even with the formal recommendations, some task force members objected to anything involving elevated lanes.

"Why are we stuffing this big project down our throats again?" asked Christie Zimmer of Land O'Lakes, a member of the east task force.

Others offered parochial concerns.

"Our county's safety and not somebody else's should be paramount," said Sandra Graves of Land O'Lakes, chairwoman of the east task force.

Marilynn deChant of New Port Richey urged commissioners to use caution in approving more development "at this time when we really have to have better transportation for our residents."

Eventually, the MPO accepted the recommendations to keep a combined task force working to narrow the choices further before engaging a consultant, possibly next year, for a more thorough vetting. Mariano dissented, saying the task force should expand its study options to include rail. But his idea found no support.

"I don't see any negatives with moving forward," Dade City Mayor Camille Hernandez said.

"Something has to be done sooner rather than later," New Port Richey City Council member Jeff Starkey said in agreement.

The state and county are seeking transportation options because Pasco projects 135,000 people will be moving to the vicinity of the SR 54/56 corridor over the next 25 years. The intersection at U.S. 41 in central Pasco already carries nearly 100,000 vehicles daily. An FDOT study of building an elevated intersection, carrying SR 54 over U.S. 41, is on hold until the county completes its own review of the entire corridor.