Saturday, February 17, 2018
Opinion

Column: Selling highway takes more than graphs and charts

Pasco County might be its own worst enemy in trying to build public support for a proposed elevated toll road above the State Road 54/56 corridor crossing the county's southern tier.

The March 10 town hall meeting disintegrated into catcalls, boos, finger-pointing, threats of political retribution and overall rancor topped by the occasional shout-out of a barnyard vernacular synonymous for skepticism.

The animosity was not unexpected, though the volume and extent of it can be traced to forcing several hundred adults to sit uncomfortably on wooden bleachers in a high school gymnasium while county staff droned on for more than an hour about population trends, traffic patterns, growth projections and economic development strategies. Exhausting? Even the battery died in the slideshow's remote control. It's amazing anybody was still awake by the time the show hit the fan, when the now-famous picture of a 20-lane highway in California flashed on the screen to illustrate the volume of automobiles the county expects to travel the corridor in future years.

Memo to county: Lose that photograph. It's morphed from dramatic to disingenuous. There will not be a 20-lane road through central Pasco. The whole reason the county and state are considering an elevated road is to circumvent wetland impacts and the high cost of right-of-way acquisition, which would prohibit expansion of the existing highway much beyond six lanes.

For argument's sake, this column won't address the idea of private companies planning, building, operating and controlling the tolls for a highway on leased public property. That is another (highly disagreeable) issue. The focus here is simply on the need.

But as long as the advice is flowing freely, here's another hint for the county: Don't just tell where Pasco is going. Show where Pasco has been.

Trinity used to be a cattle ranch. Oakstead was pasture land. Willow Bend was an orange grove. All were served by a two-lane road, County Road 54, later renamed State Road 54 when the Florida Department of Transportation assumed control of it. The drive to Tampa meant a winding route down Gunn Highway or bumper-to-bumper traffic on two-lane U.S. 41 through Land O'Lakes and Lutz.

Show how past improvements to the transportation network allowed those developments and others to thrive on former agricultural land, expanding Pasco's attraction as a bedroom community and as a quality place to live. It's why these now-angry people and tens of thousands of others initially moved here over the past 15 years or so. Adding a little perspective might help deflate the argument from those who believe the answer to transportation planning is to better control future growth. Translation: Nobody with a car can move here.

Then show the morning congestion on the Veterans Expressway where southbound motorists on the Suncoast Parkway and the Dale Mabry Highway entrance ramp merge. Show the eastbound traffic on State Road 54/56 trying to access Interstate 75 each day. On some mornings, the line of cars and trucks extends back to Cypress Creek Road. It's the busiest stretch of road in the county, west of U.S. 19, with DOT traffic counts showing 57,500 vehicles passing through daily.

But don't stop there. Show drivers impatiently cooling their heels on southbound U.S. 41 while they wait for three cycles of the traffic light to get through the intersection with State Road 54. Show the line of westbound motorists on SR 54 trying to get to the parkway. Then ask the question, if it's like this now, what will it be like in another decade and again 10 years beyond that?

That answer is key. There is little support among neighboring residents for this proposed elevated highway because they are unable to see or are willing to tolerate traffic delays. At least they are now.

"Traffic's not bad enough yet,'' House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel said about the lack of public acceptance.

Indeed. It is the same acknowledgement from the Urban Land Institute which panned the idea of an elevated toll road when its representatives toured Pasco County in the fall.

The county released the ULI report the same day as the town hall meeting. It includes a recommendation to delay the proposed elevated toll road in favor of a regional collaboration to explore unspecified alternatives, "In the meantime, the continued buildup of congestion may spawn more public support for transit solutions.''

Put another way, when rush hour becomes rush hours, maybe auto-centric people will rethink their disdain for mass transit.

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