1. Transportation

Pasco officials to consider state plan for elevated SR 54 toll road

DADE CITY — Pasco's top planners are about to get a look at a state study of options to manage future traffic on the State Road 54/56 corridor and turn it into the northern part of a regional transportation loop that would include an elevated toll road.

The Florida Department of Transportation recently wrapped up a study of the corridor from U.S. 19 in New Port Richey to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in Wesley Chapel. The county's study, approved last year and estimated to cost $250,000, will cover the corridor from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301, including the part of SR 56 that has not yet been built, although the initial project will be built between the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75. It will be paid for with mobility fees, money that developers pay to fund road improvements for the traffic their projects create.

"We hope to take this and fine tune it," said Richard Gehring, the county's chief planner. "This is a picture of 2035, but we want to look at what happens in years one through four, four through 10 and 10 through 15."

State officials were supposed to share details of the study at Thursday's monthly meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which includes members of the County Commission as well as representatives of Pasco's major cities. But the discussion was postponed until Feb. 10 when the consultant, RS&H of Jacksonville, was unable to attend the meeting.

Transportation manager James Edwards and DOT engineer Ming Gao provided a copy of the study to the Tampa Bay Times.

"This is the top part of a regional loop for the Tampa Bay region," said Gao. "It's our job to make sure we can move people and goods, now that Pasco County's focus is on growth." The corridor connects five of Pasco's major north-south thoroughfares and boasts 19 large regional developments.

The study lists 18 options, which include various forms of mass transit.

Two managed toll lanes at ground level would generate few users at a toll of 14 cents a mile and even fewer at 21 cents a mile, the study projected. Two elevated lanes would entice too few drivers as well.

However, if you build four elevated toll lanes, the scales tip, with more opting for the faster route and easing congestion on the ground-level lanes, the study suggested. Raise the toll cost from 14 to 21 cents a mile and that dips, though use is still high enough to make the project viable, officials said.

"This is the one we think has the most potential," Gehring said of the four elevated toll lanes.

The state study puts the price tag for that option, which includes express buses, between $1.7 billion and $2 billion.

Alternatives the state recommended to eliminate included all ground-level managed lanes, all options involving light rail, which produced too few riders to justify the cost, and all ground level bus rapid transit, which also would not attract enough riders.

Options deemed "feasible" included express rapid transit buses with both two and four lanes elevated, both in the median and along road shoulders. County officials will also examine charging higher tolls during peak rush hours.

Gehring said the four elevated toll lanes provided drivers with the most options.

Local drivers who want the ground level lanes have six to spread out traffic, but the express lanes will be attractive to those driving longer distances or to those who don't mind paying more to get somewhere important on time such as a business meeting or to pick up children from day care.

Said Ming, "The key is choice."

The study would develop a conceptual alignment, including how drivers would enter and exit managed lanes from general-use lanes. It would also assess potential costs to acquire right-of-way, how to accommodate express bus or other transit options and ways to pay for the project.