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Proposal envisions Pasco toll road, with some elevated lanes

Published Aug. 24, 2013

Planners and state officials have talked for years about adding toll roads to quickly developing south Pasco County, but now that talk might turn to action.

A development company called International Infrastructure Partners LLC has proposed building a privately run toll road, some of which would be elevated, across south Pasco from U.S. 19 to Interstate 75 and then east to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills.

The privately constructed and operated toll road would be the first in Florida.

The proposal, received by the state's Department of Transportation in June, has intrigued officials who have talked for years about partnering with developers on toll projects as a way to defray taxpayer costs while expanding the highway system.

Additionally, the department is now seeking proposals from other companies for similar designs and has asked that those proposals be returned to the department by Oct. 23. A decision is expected Nov. 6.

The 33-mile project would travel the right-of-way of state roads 54 and 56 and tie into highways, including I-75, U.S. 301 and the Suncoast Parkway.

Transportation officials say it would likely unfold as a series of smaller projects linked together and take years to complete.

It's too early to say, however, how long the work would last, when it would start, how much it would cost or what the tolls would cost.

Officials are intrigued because the project would relieve taxpayers from contributing to construction and maintenance costs while also providing a short-term windfall from the state's sale of needed right-of-way.

International Infrastructure would purchase or lease right-of-way from the state at fair-market price, including parts of the median to elevate the road, officials said.

"When it comes to fruition, not only would it create thousands of jobs, but it would ease the congestion in Pasco County along that corridor, state roads 54 and 56, not to mention the economic development that would happen in Pasco County and the bay area," DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

Pasco County Commission Chairman Ted Schrader said he welcomed the project as a potential economic engine and step toward creating a loop around Tampa Bay to move commuters.

"It certainly demonstrates that the private sector is paying attention to what is happening in Pasco County," he said.

John Hagen, president and CEO of the Pasco County Economic Development Council, said the project would provide a selling point to recruit industry.

"It's an attention-getter," he said. "It will sort out many of the issues people might have about how can people here go to work. It will set the stage for urban development."

If approved by the DOT, the road would create a high-speed connector between subdivisions around I-75 and the county's already developed communities along the Gulf Coast. The lanes could be reversed during hurricanes to evacuate coastal residents, Carson said.

The state had been studying adding managed lanes with fluctuating toll rates when International Infrastructure Partners hand-delivered its proposal, along with a $10,000 application fee, to department Secretary Anath Prasad on June 11.

That document, an outline, envisioned starting construction at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and proceeding west to the Suncoast Parkway. The second phase would carry the highway west to U.S. 19. A third possible phase would bring it east to U.S. 301 from Bruce B. Downs. Parts of the road would be elevated and others at ground-level.

The proposal emphasizes that "no operational subsidy from the State of Florida" would be required, but it doesn't mention possible costs or the number of lanes to be built. It identifies the project as "FL54 Xpressway."

Funding would be arranged by New York City-based Guggenheim Securities, an affiliate of Guggenheim Partners, a financial services company that manages more than $170 billion in assets.

The other partners are: International Infrastructure Partners, formed specifically for the project in April, and PCL Constructors, the $6 billion road builder working on the I-4 connector in Tampa.

The Transportation Department would hold public meetings before approving any project and coordinate with local officials, but it would not require approvals from the county or any other local government before moving forward, officials said.

"This is a state right-of-way so we do have ultimate decision making, but we always work with our partners and we don't expect anything different in this case," Carson said.

Though new to Florida, private toll roads have sprung around the nation, including in California and Virginia. Lawmakers in Maine are debating whether to allow a private 220-mile east-west toll road.

Critics warn private roads benefit businesses and their investors more than the public. Supporters argue they enhance highway systems while limiting the taxpayer expense to build them.

The new road could be the "game changer" to bring high wage jobs to Pasco and help put the county on the map as a regional player, county planning director Richard Gehring said.

Times staff writer Lisa Buie and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

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