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Friday, Aug 22, 2014

Traffic taking a toll in Pasco


No one should fault the Florida Department of Transportation for being enthusiastic about a private company’s proposal to build and operate an elevated toll road that would span south Pasco County.

The department’s job is to move traffic, and Pasco has a traffic problem in the State Road 54/56 corridor because county officials approved a reckless pattern of development without adequate road capacity, or adequate planning.

But is a privately built and operated toll road the best solution? And if it is, is one needed along the entire 30-plus-mile route from west Pasco to U.S. 301 in the Zephyrhills area? Would such a facility be utilized enough by motorists to justify construction — and the state’s faith in what would be the first road project of its type in Florida? Would the facility provide motorists a viable choice — or simply serve as another scheme to drive even more development?

And what would be the impact on communities in the corridor? Although DOT could require noise-buffering walls and aesthetically pleasing design, it is hard to believe that residents in these attractive subdivisions would not face additional daily headaches regardless of the attempts to minimize the project’s effects.

It would be absurd for state and Pasco officials to allow a major expressway to destroy the quality of life of so many residents after the county encouraged such growth.

An investigation by The Wall Street Journal last fall revealed that privately built and operated toll facilities are risky ventures. The paper cited a nationwide decline in driving and the tendency of some private investors to overestimate toll revenue. One builder, American Roads LLC, which owns the Beach Express bridge in Orange Beach, Ala., filed for bankruptcy protection in July because it “couldn’t meet debt obligations,” the Journal reported. American Roads is not involved in the Pasco proposal.

In addition, the Urban Land Institute — which Pasco officials have depended upon for planning and permitting advice — have recommended the project not be pursued. Pasco should focus more on “walkable communities,” the group has recommended.

These issues — and many more — should be answered before the state enters into any kind of lease agreement that would put a major corridor into the hands of the private sector.

Although we’re not sold on the proposal, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be explored. Clearly, something has to be done.

DOT figures show that tens of thousands of motorists traveled the corridor daily in 2012, the latest year for which traffic counts are available. From 0.3 miles east of Livingston Road to Interstate 75 in central Pasco, for example, the count was 57,500. And along S.R. 56 from west of I-75, the number was 50,000. That area is a mess.

Residents who have organized to strongly oppose the proposal should ask themselves this: Would they rather live along or near an elevated toll facility over an existing heavily traveled road that still would be available for use? Or would they rather have to deal with the addition of multiple lanes that would make S.R. 54/56 resemble a freeway in Los Angeles or Atlanta?

Although neither alternative is attractive by any stretch, either would be better than Pasco’s obsession with ramming the Ridge Road extension through the Serenova preserve in central Pasco, endangering an immensely significant water recharge area and an oasis for wildlife.

Paul Steinman, a professional engineer who is the chief DOT official for the Tampa Bay area, is correct when he told us recently, “Something has to happen.” But the state has to be very careful. It should not be rushed — or blinded by the lure of private dollars to address a major transportation issue in the region, as appealing as that is.

A thorough investigation is needed to protect taxpayers from being stuck with an albatross, residents whose quality of life may be at stake, and motorists who need relief.