Wilson not convinced Pasco needs elevated road

It’s no secret Pasco County Commissioner Henry Wilson doesn’t put a lot of faith into studies, statistics or consultants. And that’s not changing at all when it comes to the proposed elevated road for the State Road 54/56 corridor.

Pasco County officials have used a series of diagrams, like this cutaway, that show how an elevated road over the State Road 54/56 corridor could expand the existing highway from six lanes to 10. (Courtesy of Pasco County Commission)

Pasco County officials have used a series of diagrams, like this cutaway, that show how an elevated road over the State Road 54/56 corridor could expand the existing highway from six lanes to 10.
(Courtesy of Pasco County Commission)

In fact, he told the Republican Club of Central Pasco last week that if county planning and development administrator Richard Gehring can sell the privately proposed toll road he advocates to the public, he’d buy him dinner at the pricey Bern’s Steak House in Tampa.

“I want to put out this disclaimer right now,” Wilson told the group. “I was the only one of the five commissioners that has opposed this from the beginning, because I don’t think we need it.”

County officials have talked about how future growth in Pasco and the rest of the region will create significant congestion on the existing State Road 54 and State Road 56 in coming years, but that’s congestion Wilson says he hasn’t seen.

“Before I was in office, I spent 14 years travelling from New Port Richey to Tampa, and the only time I hit congestion was in Hillsborough County,” he said. “This is something that will help Hillsborough, not Pasco.”

Yet, county officials have warned against comparing current traffic issues to those that might happen in the future. In a recent meeting with the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, Pasco County administrator Michele Baker credited forward thinking that expanded the lanes in the State Road 54/56 corridor for keeping congestion under control in the present.

“We know we’ll never build enough roads to prevent congestion from occurring,” Baker said last month. Places to build east-west roads in the county are limited because of the amount of preservation land and planned development that exists, especially in the central part of the county. That limits most of the talk to both the State Road 54/56 corridor in the southern part of the county, and State Road 52 and the county line road bordering Hernando County to the north.

“When you look at all the entitlements out there, even if we didn’t approve one new development again, we’re going to need at least 20 east-west lanes,” Baker said. The two major roads have between six and eight lanes, but officials have to ask themselves, “where are the rest of those lanes going to come from?”

Wilson, however, said the idea of needing a 20-lane road in the State Road 54/56 corridor is wrong. Very few places in the country have roads that large, and nearly all of them serve populations counted in the millions, like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It’s nearly impossible to imagine the need for it here.

And the fear of such a large road is driving the support behind the elevated road, Wilson said.

“Since I have been in office, we try to say that we are business friendly,” he said. The elevated road “is probably the least business-friendly thing we could do.”

How the elevated road would move forward is based on studies conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation, Wilson said.

“It doesn’t say anything about it being determined by Pasco County needs, or Pasco County wants, or Pasco County anything,” he said. “And we know that a government study can say anything we want it to say. Just like statistics. We can make it say anything you want it to say.”

A private road development group, International Infrastructure Partners Inc., has asked the FDOT to give up key right-of-way along the State Road 54/56 corridor to build an elevated toll road that would connect Zephyrhills at U.S. 301, and New Port Richey at U.S. 19. The 33-mile project would be constructed through private money, with returns coming from toll revenue.

Although the project is commonly known as an elevated road, Baker said no one should expect every mile of it will be above the ground. Some pieces could be much lower.

“Are they going to build an elevated road from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301? There’s no reason to,” Baker said. “The whole road doesn’t require that, and it doesn’t make sense.”

Flyovers would have to occur at major intersections, however, like where State Road 54 and Land O’ Lakes Boulevard meet, an intersection that already draws 100,000 cars a day, according to the county. And the goal would be to prevent flyovers similar to what’s found on U.S. 19 in Pinellas County, splitting entire areas in half, and forcing many businesses to face a giant wall where the road elevates, Baker said.

Yet, the need for such a structure is at least a decade away, if not more, Wilson said. And that means the county can convince the FDOT to slow down a bit on the project.

“If we don’t need it for 15 to 20 years, then there is probably going to be a better option in the next few years,” he said.

Published Feb. 5, 2014

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