Pasco County needs better traffic flow between east and west, but the answer is not a privately owned toll road. After receiving an unsolicited bid from a private company in June to build a toll road along the State Road 54/56 corridor for 25 miles from U.S. 19 to Wesley Chapel, and potentially further east toward Zephyrhills, the Florida Department of Transportation sought additional proposals. The state should be wary of turning over its responsibility for building roads to private enterprise more interested in making a profit.
Under the plan, the state would sell or lease public right of way, allowing a private company to build new lanes in the median for uninterrupted travel and to charge tolls to recoup the projected $2 billion investment. Planners envision elevated, managed toll lanes for motorists and express buses.
The push for private highways is a by-product of a smaller government, less-tax philosophy in a state unwilling to raise revenue to meet its transportation needs. The problem is exacerbated by Florida's role as a donor state on federal gas taxes, receiving 91 cents in federal road money for every dollar it sends to Washington. To public officials, the private road scheme has the allure of pushing the financial risk onto the private sector and saving state revenue for other highway construction. But the true risk remains with drivers, who face the prospect of pricey tolls to cover both the debt and a profit for the builder/operator.
Portions of the route have been troublesome for road planners. More than two decades ago, elected officials and the DOT failed to connect the Veterans Expressway to Interstate 75 with an east-west road through Lutz in Hillsborough or Land O' Lakes in southern Pasco. The SR 54/SR 56 highway acted as that connection, forcing thousands of daily rush-hour commuters to travel with school buses and other local traffic in growing congestion. The impetus for a new road now comes from Pasco County's long-range plan to funnel future growth into that corridor. Projections call for a 55 percent increase in population in that area, to more than 312,000 people, by 2035.
If the need is there, then the state should build the new lanes even if they are toll lanes. But the state shouldn't be in such a hurry to cede its toll-road authority to a private entity. The result could be an undesirable two-tiered transportation network serving more affluent commuters with private roads and forcing everyone else onto the underfunded public highway network.