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Tuesday, Apr 23, 2019
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DOT official close to pulling plug on Pasco toll road

TAMPA – Plans for a privately-owned toll road stretching 33 miles across southern Pasco County have fallen apart because bidders can’t make the numbers work without an infusion of tax dollars.

“It doesn’t look promising; so that doesn’t mean it’s dead, but it doesn’t look good, either,” Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said.

“Just because it’s a private proposal, you don’t want to make a bad decision. At the end of the day, the project and the project’s finances should drive the decision and that’s ultimately what’s driving the decision.”

Florida’s Department of Transportation since January has negotiated with a consortium headed by the Spanish construction company OHL to build and operate an elevated toll road over State Road 54. If approved, the $2 billion project would have been the state’s first private toll road and would have linked U.S. 19 and U.S. 301.

Prasad said he met last Thursday with OHL representatives, who presented various options for the road in response to considerable public opposition to the project. That’s when the firm said it could not build the project without taxpayer dollars.

“We asked them to look at different scenarios, and each scenario it looks like the state’s going to have to do something,” Prasad said. “If that’s the case, then it’s probably better to hit the reset button.”

Prasad said he wanted to touch base one last time with OHL to make sure he didn’t misunderstand anything. The firm gave a detailed presentation, complete with design sketches and project budgets, but did not leave any documents with state transportation officials.

Prasad said they discussed building only the 10-mile segment between the Suncoast Parkway and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, or building the road on the ground with flyovers at the busiest intersections.

“All those things are workable, but the big thing I come back to is this proposal was submitted to the department to say the private sector would be able to bring equity to build, operate and maintain this facility with no taxpayer dollars,” he said. “That is, as we peel the onion back, turning out not to be the case. And if that’s not the case, then I’m not so sure we want to go forward with this project. If the state’s going to put equity in this, then we would go through a different approach.”

Consortium partner Gerald Stanley, who submitted the unsolicited bid last summer for the project, declined an interview request. “We gave our proposal to the DOT. It’s in their hands now,” he said.

Pasco County Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said he is “absolutely delighted that this is the end of the elevated toll road.” He praised neighborhood groups, particularly the grass-roots Pasco Fiasco organization, for speaking with a strong and unified voice to stop the project.

“It’s gratifying,” group founder Rich Connors said. “It’s nice to see a grass-roots type of thing that really came from nothing have such a huge victory. I guess you can fight city hall.”

Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker said she hopes the public remains engaged while the county considers different options for addressing future congestion on the State Road 54/56 corridor. The county’s annual citizen survey gives residents a chance to rank different potential solutions.

Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, the target of much criticism from toll road opponents, said the concept was ahead of its time. “This would have put a lot of capacity on (State Road) 54 before it was really needed,” she said. “The thing that intrigued me about it was the opportunity to not have to go through a 25-year construction period, like they did on U.S. 19.”

She said now the county and state must pick up the tab to build a flyover at the intersection of State Road 54 and U.S. 41. County officials have said that project could include a toll, but the revenues either would go to the county or the Florida Turnpike Authority.

Prasad vowed to continue working with officials from the region to address their transportation needs, but said future improvements to State Road 54 will go through a traditional “bottom up” approach. He hasn’t shut the door on public-private-partnerships to finance future transportation projects.

“We created a climate in Florida that we’re open to these sort of proposals,” he said. “But hopefully we’ve been able to demonstrate to Pasco County that just because we’re open, we’re still going to be very good stewards of our taxpayers’ interests — that if it doesn’t make sense, we are capable of saying no.”

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