Pasco County residents and county commissioners should prepare to carefully scrutinize plans for a privately built, elevated toll road across the county's southern tier and to raise their objections. To its credit, the Florida Department of Transportation says it is unlikely to pursue the controversial project if residents and county commissioners oppose it. And there already are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about what would be the state's first privately built and operated toll road.
Paul J. Steinman, DOT secretary for the Tampa Bay region, suggested to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday that Pasco residents and officials reserve judgment until details about the elevated road's finances and proposed design become clearer in a month or so. Even after that, he said, the DOT would have to negotiate an agreement with the private developers before construction could start. But Steinman also made clear that opinions from the public and the County Commission would be influential in whether the project is approved by the state. "This isn't a project we want to force down people's throats,'' he said.
Steinman's comments should provide some comfort to Pasco residents near the State Road 54/56 corridor who contend the highway is a boondoggle that would enrich the private sector. They are correct in questioning its need, at least for now. The DOT sees the elevated road as a solution to a future problem, but not a traffic problem bad enough to warrant immediate attention. The state is pursuing plans to add two lanes to SR 54 between U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway, and it continues to study a flyover at the SR 54/U.S. 41 intersection in Land O'Lakes. But the DOT has no plans to build an elevated toll road here or a large-scale alternative. No wonder the public is suspicious of the unsolicited proposal by a private group.
The idea is pushed by a consortium of private companies known as Florida 54 Express. It wants to lease state right of way so it can build and operate an east-west 33-mile elevated toll road from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301. Steinman dubbed it a high-level concept with few details. There is no technical data, no engineering study, no traffic and revenue projection. That is why he suggested community opposition is premature.
But what is known should give the DOT and the county reason to pause. The private suitors, International Infrastructure Partners and OHL Infrastructure, are expected to provide detailed information to the DOT next month. The state should be careful in its review to avoid a repeat of past performance. OHL's toll road in Madrid, Spain, recently entered bankruptcy proceedings after high construction costs and falling traffic counts triggered unexpected financial difficulties, according to international press accounts.
Some Pasco County commissioners are rightfully skeptical even though their projections call for a 55 percent population increase along the corridor over the next 20 years. An Urban Land Institute study commissioned by the county criticized the elevated highway, saying it would deter the community connectivity and aesthetics that Pasco seeks for its neighborhoods.
The DOT finds the proposal intriguing because the private sector assumes the financial risk for what could be a $2 billion investment. But a privately built and operated toll road, particularly in this location, is not in the public's best interest regardless of the revenue projections and the final design. The real risk falls to motorists who face the prospect of high tolls to cover construction debt, ongoing expense and a profit for a private group of speculators. Pasco residents and county commissioners should be prepared to send a clear, coherent message when the project's specifics are revealed — and remind DOT officials that they promised to listen.