TALLAHASSEE — State transportation officials accepted a bid Wednesday from private investors who want to build and operate an elevated toll road in southern Pasco County that could change commuting patterns for generations of Tampa Bay motorists.
But before the first shovel of dirt is turned, the Florida Department of Transportation must negotiate a lease for public right-of-way in the State Road 54/State Road 56 corridor with the bidder, Florida 54 Express.
“We cleared the first hurdle,” said Gerald Stanley, the Lutz engineer who submitted the unsolicited proposal to the Department of Transportation last summer. If built, FL 54 Xpress would be the state’s first toll road built entirely with private dollars. “We’re excited about the possibility that the project will move forward.”
Stanley formed International Infrastructure Partners and teamed up with one of the world’s largest construction companies, OHL, to bid for the Pasco project. The 33-mile toll road would link U.S. 19 to U.S. 301 and provide unfettered access to the Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75.
According to the proposal, which wasn’t made public until Wednesday afternoon, the consortium made an initial offer of $1.05 million per year for the duration of the lease. The consortium would negotiate tolling rates and other revenue-sharing proposals with state transportation officials. The initial lease would last 45 years but could be extended to 99 years.
Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development for DOT’s district 7 office, said the team has the right credentials and experience but that lease negotiations could take several months.
“The proposal is very vague,” she said. “The devil is in the details. The first step was deciding is it worth moving forward to negotiate, and it was.”
OHL, founded in Spain more than a century ago, currently operates 10 toll roads in Spain, Mexico and Peru. It is one of four companies that made the Florida Department of Transportation’s short list to build Orlando’s I-4 Ultimate Project, a $2.5 billion toll road. OHL also won a contract last year to build a toll road in Texas.
“Obviously, it’s a big deal,” Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said. The Pasco Republican said Florida must rely on the private sector to help the state meet its transportation needs but said local officials need to carefully scrutineze the project. “I’m confident that our county commissioners will look at this thoroughly,” he said.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority has endorsed the project, calling the corridor one of its highest priorities.
Pasco County commissioners passed a resolution in December supporting the project, meaning studies could have moved forward even if the department rejected the Florida 54 Express bid.
“From the county’s standpoint, it’s important to know where we fit into the negotiating process,” said Jim Edwards, director of Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. He already has met with Longleaf residents to quell concerns about the project.
Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey has scheduled a town hall meeting later this month to discuss the project.
“We have challenges on 54, and none of the solutions are perfect,” Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. “That’s why we need to educate the public. We can’t widen 54 to 20 lanes. Of course, an elevated highway isn’t perfect, either.”
Stanley said members of the consortium will “hold a meeting with all the stakeholders in the near future so we can discuss our plans and listen to the ideas and concerns from the community.”
The team also will meet with homeowners associations and business groups and design a website. “The Team fully expects to engage with the public and inform them of the project throughout the entire lifecycle,” according to the proposal. “We will prepare a public involvement program and coordinate that with FDOT and Pasco County.”
The highway is expected to accelerate the development of several planned communities along the S.R. 54 corridor, just as the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway was a catalyst for Brandon and the Suncoast Parkway linked Hernando and Citrus counties into the Tampa Bay job market.
State Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said he worries that the elevated highway will harm property values along the corridor. “It gives me great pause,” Legg said. “I’m very skeptical and cynical about this project. Now that I know it’s moving forward, I’ll be asking a lot of questions.”
Stanley said “if everything works out perfectly” construction could start as early as late 2015. But Hunt said that timeline might be unrealistic, especially if the toll road intersects I-75.
“They’re going to want full access to I-75,” she said. “That could take anywhere from 2-7 years to get federal approval.”