NEW PORT RICHEY — With everyone from homeowner groups to chambers of commerce lining up to oppose plans for an elevated toll road on the State Road 54/56 corridor, Pasco commissioners probably don’t need a countywide survey to gauge public support for the $2 billion project. But they’re going to get one.
Commissioners agreed to include a question regarding the controversial toll road project on this year’s annual citizen survey, which will be mailed to 1,600 random households and posted on the county website. Each year, commissioners include a question concerning a local, hot-button issue — last year it was the proposed gas tax increase.
The toll road question is titled “S.R. 54/56 Potential Improvement Options for Year 2035.” It goes on to explain that over the next two decades, the state highway will need to be widened beyond its current six-lane configuration — even if the county widens S.R. 52 and County Line Road and builds the Ridge Road extension.
“The opportunities to construct additional parallel roadways as alternatives to improving S.R. 54/56 are limited or non-existent. In addition, Pasco County is not projected to have the density or intensity of land uses to support passenger rail along the S.R. 54/56 corridor,” it reads.
The question gives residents seven options, ranging from buying enough land to build eight or more lanes along the corridor, building elevated overpasses at key intersections such as U.S. 41 — similar to U.S. 19 in Pinellas County, keeping the road six lanes and building the elevated toll road in the median — the proposal currently being studied by a private consortium “FL54 Xpress.”
Other options include building exclusive bus lanes and allowing congestion to occur on the highway, accepting highway congestion but increasing the bus service on the corridor and allowing buses to bypass congestion, or building an east-west freeway through a more rural area of Pasco.
The last choice is the one that caused consternation among the commissioners. It simply gives respondents the option of “no additional improvements beyond six lanes to address congestion on 54/56.”
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said doing nothing really isn’t an option because it would force the county to implement a building moratorium on its primary growth corridor.
“The developments along 54/56 — their approvals are based on that added capacity,” Starkey said. “You’d have to take away from what’s already approved. You’ll have lawsuits.”
In other words, huge projects like Starkey Ranch and Mitchell Ranch, which have entitlements for thousands of new homes, wouldn’t be able to build their later phases until a transportation network is in place to handle the additional traffic.
“Some of those roadways will be broken,” County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said. “You’re going to have failures on those roads. There are certain conditions in their development approvals that they will not be able to comply with.”
Even administrator Marc Bellas, who oversees the annual survey, admitted the final option is unrealistic — since the Florida Department of Transportation wouldn’t allow a major highway like S.R. 54 to fail.
“I just think you’ll have a lot of NIMBYs clicking on that last one because they don’t understand the ramifications,” Starkey said.
So far more than 1,300 people have signed an online petition opposing the project. Last week, the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce and Pasco Alliance of Community Associations joined the “Not In My Back Yard” chorus.
“I know we’ve tried to do a lot as far as educating people about that 54/56 elevated expressway, but I get nothing but negative from businesses along there and property owners,” Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said.
Bellas said he considered that opponents could go online to skew the results. “We use survey monkey, so you can only take it one time per computer,” Bellas said. “So that helps. We still usually get about twice the number of responses online.”
Commissioner Pat Mulieri said the survey will help the county get a “generalized opinion” about the options for the 33-mile corridor. “I understand they want to get public input, but it’s really difficult until the company doing the feasibility study says what it is they’re going to do,” she said.
Steinsnyder reminded commissioners that the annual survey simply garners opinion. “It doesn’t bind you to take any action,” he said. “If the opinion comes back and it’s not legal, moral or ethical for you to do, then you ignore it.”
Lutz engineer Gerald Stanley, who founded consortium partner IIP, submitted the unsolicited bid for the private toll road last summer that set the process in motion years before Pasco County or the FDOT could have considered a project of that scale. Stanley said officials with his partner, Spanish construction company OHL, are completing the feasibility study and conceptual designs.
The consortium partners are well aware of the opposition movement.
“There’s no sense in really talking with them until we know if the project is even feasible,” Stanley said. “We should know something in the next couple of weeks.”