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Monday, Dec 22, 2014
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Pasco toll road moves forward, but draws just one bid

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TALLAHASSEE — A toll road that promises to change how people get around in Tampa Bay drew just one construction bid Monday, delighting some supporters who worried there would be none and fueling opponents’ argument that smart money won’t back the $2 billion project.

Lutz engineer Gerald Stanley and his partners were the sole bidders on the proposal for a 33-mile, private toll road along the State Road 54/56 corridor in Pasco County along the Hillsborough County line.

“Now we go forward with seeing what they are offering,” said Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Ultimately, the goal is for “the state and Pasco County to gain a significant transportation improvement project,” Prasad said.

Stanley first approached Pasco County several years ago with the concept of an elevated toll road that could connect U.S. 19 in the west to U.S. 301 in the east. In June, he formed International Infrastructure Partners and submitted an unsolicited proposal for the project.

Monday’s bid was offered under the name “Florida 54 Express” in association with International Infrastructure Partners. Stanley attended the bid opening in Tallahassee but has not granted interview requests.

Details won’t be released until Jan. 8, when a selection committee decides whether the proposal meets the technical specifications of the project. It would be the first entirely private toll road in Florida.

The Department of Transportation has spent about $750,000 studying and planning the road. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority also endorsed the project, calling the corridor one of its highest priorities.

“This is a major east-west corridor, not only for Pasco but for northern Hillsborough and Pinellas drivers,” Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker said.

It’s also the best method for delivering an efficient bus rapid transit system in Pasco, Baker said.

“Transit only works if its more convenient than driving,” she said.

Some Pasco commissioners were disappointed the project didn’t attract any competing bids, but Chairman Jack Mariano said he was pleased that International Infrastructure Partners is still committed to the project.

“I didn’t expect anyone else to jump in,” Mariano said. “I’m happy it’s moving forward.”

Pasco County commissioners earlier this month passed a resolution supporting the project, meaning studies can move forward regardless of whether the state receives a bid.

Baker said that if the deal with International Infrastructure Partners falls through, Pasco could partner with the state and Florida Turnpike Authority or with another private investor to build the toll road. But that would likely delay the project by at least a decade.

The transportation department extended the bidding period to Dec. 9 after International Infrastructure Partners withdrew its original offer in October, citing worries about local political support.

The project has faced opposition since a panel of experts from the Urban Land Institute cautioned Pasco commissioners against building an elevated highway. Institute planners noted that several cities, including Louisville, Ky., New Orleans and Seattle, are tearing down elevated highways and replacing them ground-level boulevards.

Transportation department consultants had studied a number of options, including a light rail corridor and a 20-lane highway, to accommodate the area’s future transportation needs. Each was ruled out as impractical or too expensive.

The roadway may end up resembling elevated portions of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the proposed Gandy Connector. This design allows for better traffic circulation and is friendlier to local business traffic.

“We want to preserve the local road at grade for free for our local residents and businesses,” Baker said. “The elevated lanes can serve the regional pass-through traffic for people who are willing to pay for that privilege.”

Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said it’s critical for local officials to clear up public misconceptions about the project.

“I had one man call me, and he was upset because he thought he wouldn’t be able to drive on S.R. 54 anymore.”

Another complained the project is a back-door attempt to raise the county’s gas tax.

“The public needs a lot more information,” Starkey said. “If this deal works out, no taxpayer money would go to it.”

Prasad said that with a formal bid in hand, state and local officials can address those concerns.

“A lot of players will get engaged and there will be public meetings about what the project should look like,” Prasad said. “But it needs to make financial sense” for the bidder.

State Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz voiced reservations about the project.

“I have a lot of caution, cynicism and skepticism for a project that only received a single bid — particularly an unsolicited bid,” Legg said. “I think it raises a lot of questions.”

The project would be divided into three phases, but International Infrastructure Partners proposed building the first two segments from U.S. 19 to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard simultaneously. The announcement last month that the transportation department would pay for construction of a new S.R. 56 extension in 2018 likely eliminated the need for the third segment anytime in the near future.

lkinsler@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1852

Twitter: @LKinslerTBO

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