The Florida Department of Transportation keeps moving forward with a private group's plan to build and own an elevated toll road in southern Pasco County even as some county commissioners are reconsidering their support and opposition builds among local residents. Privately built and operated toll roads are not in the public interest. Pasco residents and public officials should press Gov. Rick Scott's administration to slow down and develop its own highway plan for accommodating more traffic along the State Road 54/56 east-west corridor.
A vague proposal from a multicompany consortium, Florida 54 Express LLC, offers slightly more than $1 million a year to lease DOT's right of way to build and operate a 33-mile elevated toll road stretching from U.S. 19 east to Zephyrhills. The companies ask for no public money and promise to cover shortfalls if ridership and toll income fail to meet projections. They would share revenue with the state after unspecified traffic thresholds are met.
Opposition from Pasco County residents focuses on fears of a diminished quality of life and falling property values. Consultants from the Urban Land Institute had recommended Pasco abandon the elevated road concept because it would be at odds with the county's desire to create a sense of place among its neighborhoods. That put county officials in the awkward position of trying to debunk a report they had commissioned for $110,000.
The attention to aesthetics and connectivity is logical, but the real scrutiny should be aimed at a private proposal so rosy it calls for the private group to assume all risks even though tolling studies haven't been completed. The state's eagerness is all too clear in a time line released last week that calls for the DOT to begin lease negotiations in May at the same time three public meetings gather residents' input. It would make more sense to hear and address public concerns before seeking a deal.
It may be too early to abandon entirely the idea of an elevated toll road, as Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano is willing to do. But the skepticism is warranted even as the county considers all of its options. Commissioners cannot be close-minded, because the county needs a modern east-west transportation alternative after adopting land-use policies to drive growth toward the State Road 54/56 corridor. The county's geography, including two large well fields north of the corridor, limit suggested alternatives of adding highway lanes elsewhere. And the state recognized the need to move traffic between the Veterans Expressway/Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75 more than 20 years ago.
As the state and county's long-range road plans were being developed, a predecessor to Florida 54 Express LLC submitted an unsolicited bid last summer to build and operate a private toll road above the existing corridor. It is a bid that "hijacked the conversation,'' in the words of Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker. She's right. The DOT should slow down and develop a viable, publicly owned alternative before cutting a quick deal with a private group that will be more interested in making money from drivers than being publicly accountable.