1. Transportation

Big dig's big cost: Pasco tunnel idea carries $550 million price tag

NEW PORT RICHEY — Construction costs to tunnel under U.S. 41 in central Pasco could top a half-billion dollars, four times the projected price of building elevated lanes above the highway's intersection with State Road 54.

The cost estimate, said Commissioner Mike Moore, "is mind-numbing. I don't see how we can consider going forward.''

Nonetheless, Moore and the rest of the elected city and county officials sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization weren't quite ready to bury the tunnel idea. At a meeting Thursday, the panel acquiesced to Commissioner Jack Mariano's appeal to delay a decision for another month. Mariano asked for a comparison of the tunnel's conceptual costs to the design and construction of an underground thoroughfare in Ft. Lauderdale.

"I don't think we took the right look,'' Mariano said.

According to estimates compiled with the aid of two construction industry representatives, the cost of building a tunnel taking State Road 54 beneath the intersection with U.S. 41 could amount to $550 million, plus $70 million to buy necessary land and an unknown amount of long-term maintenance costs. The building technique is known as cut and cover.

The cost is based on an estimated 6,000 linear feet including 1,000-foot approaches from each direction and 4,000 feet of underground road. Building the same length of elevated highway above the intersection is proposed to cost $134 million, plus the same $70 million right-of-way expense and $7 million to maintain the flyover through 2040.

"We wanted to make sure we looked at every option,'' said Moore. "Unfortunately it's very, very costly. My assumption is FDOT would not look very kindly on $550 million versus $134 million.''

David Gwynn, the state Department of Transportation regional secretary, sat nearby and provided an immediate, though diplomatic, response.

"It's certainly a lot more difficult to fund than the other options,'' Gwynn said.

The transportation board requested the underpass cost study in January as it was about to hear recommendations from its citizens task force, which spent two years studying potential improvements to the intersection and the entire State Road 54/56 corridor.

The citizens panel winnowed 18 alternatives to four recommendations, including building elevated lanes, at-grade improvements, and its top choice — a network of frontage roads known as a parallel-flow intersection. The task force did not consider the tunnel idea.

The intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in Land O' Lakes and Lutz already sees 100,000 vehicles travel through it daily. Growth projections indicate the traffic will more than double over the next 22 years.

Part of the dilemma of investing heavily in the tunnel is that it would solve only part of the congestion.

By 2040, projections call for 80 percent of the vehicles to turn at the intersection, with the remainder 20 percent traveling straight through it, said Ali Atefi, the transportation board's engineer.

"I'm just very pessimistic about this,'' said New Port Richey Deputy Mayor Jeff Starkey.

He wasn't alone. Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. also questioned the costs and a few members of the citizens task force sat in the audience, expressing dismay at yet another delay.

"It's like death by a thousand paper cuts,'' said John Copeland, president of the Pasco Alliance of Community Associations.

Reach C.T. Bowen at or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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