The Florida Department of Transportation is correctly casting doubt about the viability of a private consortium’s proposal to build an elevated toll road across south Pasco County for a simple reason: The project isn’t what it was cracked up to be.
Consortium principals have touted that the project would be privately built, privately operated and privately maintained — that public money would be not needed. But as the Tribune’s Laura Kinsler reported this week, Secretary Ananth Prasad said he discovered during a recent meeting that the group would, indeed, need public money, leading him to say the project as submitted may not be doable.
Prasad left a bit of wiggle room by not flatly rejecting the proposal; he plans to revisit the matter with the principals soon. But the final decision should be easy if the circumstances don’t change. No public money should be used.
It was the developers who solicited the state, saying they could build, operate and maintain the elevated facility without public subsidies, and they should be held to that. And taxpayers need to be protected.
Of course, if it turns out public money won’t be needed, that doesn’t mean the consortium should be given the green light. There are major questions about the need, long-term feasibility, the impact to neighborhoods and the proposed length of the project — 33 miles, linking U.S. 19 and U.S. 301.
Even with the great uncertainty about the project, Pasco and state officials still have a dilemma on their hands — daily traffic jams on state roads 54 and 56 in central Pasco, especially in the area of Interstate 75. And they must be addressed, even if it means adding more lanes. Better public transit also needs to play a role in a county that sends tens of thousands of people into Hillsborough County to go to work.
State lawmakers also need to be watching how this plays out, because it clearly shows that the state needs a role in growth management, which the Legislature essentially killed a few sessions ago. With growth returning to Florida, traffic is only going to get worse unless transportation improvements keep pace.