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Toll road plan hits a big pothole

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand hasn't seen the feasibility study on the proposed toll road that would connect southwest Pasco with Interstate 75.

She knows the gist of it, though.

"It says that we should probably give up the ghost on the Bi-County Thruway," she said Friday. "The numbers that we thought were going to be there . . . are not there."

The Thruway project, also known as the Bi-County Expressway, was conceived in 1987 as "the dream road," Hildebrand said, a 24-mile transportation project to link the Holiday area with east Pasco County, crossing the planned Suncoast Parkway.

"(The Florida Department of Transportation) thought this was a great idea. Pasco County's planners and engineering thought this was a great idea," Hildebrand said. The county spent $435,000 on studies during eight years before URS Consultants, subcontractors for Pasco's engineering firm of Post Buckley Schuh & Jernigan, prepared a first-draft report on June 22.

"It does not seem that the Bi-County Expressway project is feasible to build under the current conditions," the report's conclusion reads. It offers two main reasons:

Low travel demand. Traffic projections for the most likely alternative routes show between 6,000 and 9,300 riders per day along various parts of the Bi-County in its first year. Toll roads generally need at least 35,000 riders a day to justify the road's cost, however. In this case, cost is estimated at about $135-million, or nearly $6-million per mile.

Free road availability. By the year 2005, when the Bi-County was to have opened, improvements to existing roads, such as state roads 52 and 54, would be such that riders simply wouldn't consider a toll road to be a useful alternative.

As a result, the Bi-County Expressway probably wouldn't bring in enough money to be practical. "The project failed to pass either of the two tests for financial feasibility established by the Florida Legislature," according to the report.

For example, the state figures a toll road should gain an average net revenue in its first five years that is at least half of its annual debt payments. The Bi-County's estimated average intake for fiscal years 2005 through 2009 is just $903,200, a scant 6.6-percent of the $13.6-million yearly debt service.

A toll road's revenues also should be matching its annual debt by its 15th year of service, by state standards. Estimates show that the Bi-County would be about $5.5-million short by the end of fiscal year 2019, according to the report.

Hildebrand said she hoped the proposed Ridge Road extension would help serve the county's need for a third major route between east and west. The Bi-County Expressway proposal is not dead yet, however. Ralph Weeks, of the county's developmental services department, said the county will continue to discuss the project with consultants and prepare a full report for commissioners some time in mid-August.