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  1. Opinion

Toll lane study tries to answer 20-year-old question

Trying to expedite travel time through south-central Pasco County is not a new challenge for road planners. The latest idea is to see if the route can accommodate motorists willing to pay more for a faster commute.

Last week, Pasco commissioners agreed to begin a projected six- to eight-month study of adding so-called managed lanes of traffic including variable tolls and potentially elevated highways to connect the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.

It is the same traffic flow the Florida Department of Transportation has been trying to solve for more than two decades — getting vehicles from the north-south Veterans Expressway/Suncoast Parkway to I-75. Public opposition in Hillsborough County helped kill a proposed east-west route slated for Lutz in the early 1990s and Land O'Lakes residents objected to its second incarnation as a divided highway along what was then a two-lane State Road 54.

Eventually a widened SR 54 and the addition of SR 56 became that de facto east-west route. But it has meant substantial congestion at the U.S. 41 intersection and other points as local traffic mixes each day with rush-hour commuters heading for the parkway or I-75 to travel to and from jobs in Tampa and elsewhere. With new employment centers planned in Wesley Chapel (Raymond James Financial) and close to the parkway (T. Rowe Price), a new community college campus and projected sports complex in the Wiregrass Ranch area and substantial growth anticipated along the corridor, the ability to move people along Pasco's southern tier is growing more imperative.

SR 54, that one-time two-lane country road that essentially doubled as a downtown for the Land O'Lakes community, is now envisioned as Tampa Bay's northern loop that would include lanes of traffic designated specifically for mass transit and toll-paying motorists. It is an aggressive proposal that challenges the typical state planning model of waiting until the DOT has enough gasoline tax revenue to widen an existing road. It will require buy-in from the private sector to pay for construction and from a driving public already confronting high gasoline costs. Certainly, there will be political considerations, too, as push back from those favoring the status quo should be expected.

Those are concerns that will be addressed later. For now, the information to be gathered includes cost, projected ridership, environmental impact and a potential timetable for proceeding. Advocates favor a more immediate start to take advantage of cheaper construction prices. There also is a sense of urgency to improve the regional transportation network in the wake of a stalled push for rail in Hillsborough County.

Many questions remain. But, the study is a worthwhile exercise to try to decipher if express toll lanes, some other transit mechanism or greater gridlock is the ultimate future to crossing Pasco's southern region.