1. Opinion

Editorial: End the fantasy of elevated toll road

Published May 9, 2014

Florida appears poised to stop flirting with a privately financed toll road in southern Pasco County after the promoter finally acknowledged it would require public money. Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad should slam the door on this distraction so the state and community can get back to more sensible planning. A privately financed elevated toll road never made sense here, and it should not have taken this long to end this fantasy.

OHL Infrastructure, one of the private companies known as Florida 54 Express, acknowledged during a May 1 video conference that it would need public dollars to build a 33-mile highway along the State Road 54/56 corridor between U.S. 19 and Zephyrhills. The project was projected to cost as much as $2 billion.

That statement contradicted the companies' previously rosy projections that in exchange for a $1 million annual lease payment to the state it could build the highway on the public right of way and charge motorists an undetermined toll to use it. It turns out the state cannot get roads for free, and even multinational companies cannot charge drivers tolls high enough to pay for one.

One more meeting between the DOT and the road builders is planned, but Prasad should kill this untested concept, which would have been the state's first privately built and operated toll road. The genesis dates to 2007 when Pasco County began studying a potential elevated highway as a long-term answer to east-west traffic congestion, and the county refocused on the idea after consultants dismissed rail as a possible alternative.

Last summer, the private sector "hijacked the conversation,'' in the words of Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker, when a private consortium submitted an unsolicited proposal for the four-lane highway as an elevated toll road. It drew public criticism from those living near the route, dwindling support from Pasco commissioners and a high-profile rebuke from the Urban Land Institute. The institute smartly criticized the proposal as counterproductive to Pasco County's mission to develop more engaging communities.

Also fueling the skepticism was that the profit-driven plan was trying to fill a need that does not yet exist. Transportation officials have said that the state was not planning immediate changes beyond adding two lanes along SR 54 east of the parkway and studying a flyover at U.S. 41. It's difficult to build consensus for a significant highway project when motorists' reservations about a diminished quality of life from a new toll road trump their concerns about traffic jams.

This episode should be a lesson for state leaders about the limits of private investment for public roadways. Investors are more interested in finding projects to make money than in smart transportation planning, and Floridians should not be forced to pay high tolls to line their pockets.