Elevated road brings community together … to protest

Author Margaret Mead once cautioned to “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world” because “indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

If a private company wants to build an elevated toll road above State Road 54, it will have to convince homeowners like Patrick Knight, Jason Amerson, Brian Narcum and Kristine Narcum, to do it. The four say communities like Stonegate, where they live, will be subject to noise and heavy traffic outside their quiet community. (Photo by Michael Hinman)

If a private company wants to build an elevated toll road above State Road 54, it will have to convince homeowners like Patrick Knight, Jason Amerson, Brian Narcum and Kristine Narcum, to do it. The four say communities like Stonegate, where they live, will be subject to noise and heavy traffic outside their quiet community. (Photo by Michael Hinman)

Jason Amerson isn’t exactly looking to change the world. But he is building support to stop change along State Road 54 that could bring an elevated toll road in the future.

“I never imagined something like this was going to land right on my doorstep,” said Amerson, who moved into the Stonegate community west of Land O’ Lakes Boulevard five years ago. “That is why I am taking this so seriously.”

Amerson is one of a growing group of residents living just off State Road 54 opposed to International Infrastructure Partners’ plan to build a 33-mile elevated road between Zephyrhills and New Port Richey. Such a project could be visible from his neighborhood, currently shielded by trees and other homes, Amerson said, and the highway noise could destroy his property value.

So Amerson has joined a new community activist group known as Pasco Fiasco that has just one goal: Stop the elevated road.

“I am tired of seeing businesses go out of business around here,” Amerson said. “A road like this would force businesses and families to move, and it would be impossible for any of us to ever sell our homes here. We’re going to be kind of locked in here.”

Pasco County officials, however, disagree on that kind of impact. County planning and development administrator Richard Gehring insists the expressway portion of the road would be used by travelers who likely wouldn’t have stopped at businesses along the State Road 54/56 corridor anyway. By moving them up, local traffic will move easier on the lower roads, and actually help businesses rather than hurt them.

Some members of the newly formed Pasco Fiasco group made their first public appearance during a Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting last week in New Port Richey. They included Land O’ Lakes native Sharon Ogborn, who feels the elevated road is more about accommodating commuters from other areas than it is her Odessa community.

“We moved to our present home in Odessa for the country feeling and the rural setting,” Ogborn said. “It’s going to help Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.”

Pasco Fiasco has already received some support from the Pasco County Commission. Henry Wilson has already made his opposition to the project clear, and at last week’s MPO meeting, fellow commissioner Jack Mariano started to question the project as well.

Yet, the final decision lies not with county officials, but with the Florida Department of Transportation. And while officials there have said they’d want county support before moving forward with the elevated road project, they don’t require it since State Road 54 is just that, a state road.

“Ultimately, the FDOT probably does have the final say, but I think they are going to basically honor what the county commission wants,” Amerson said. “But if Tallahassee thinks it’s a great idea, and the FDOT thinks it’s a great idea, I’m not sure if they’ll listen to the county commissioners in the end.”

Amerson admits that growth in Pasco County is going to eventually require something be done with State Road 54. But he feels county officials have not exhausted all other options quite yet.

Gehring, however, said the county explored 18 alternatives to move traffic east and west in Pasco County. And even if State Road 52 is expanded into multiple lanes, and the expansion of Ridge Road is completed, the best plan to move the large volume of traffic projected along the State Road 54/56 corridor in the next decades is an elevated toll road.

The project most likely wouldn’t have been necessary if homeowners in Hillsborough County didn’t successfully protest road expansions there — like the proposed Lutz Expressway blocked by area residents — that could’ve helped move traffic to the south. And Amerson is interested in taking a little from that playbook.

“Each time they have tried to do this somewhere, it gets beaten back by the people,” he said. “I don’t feel what we have here is any different. I think we really can stop this.”

In the meantime, Amerson has teamed up with Richard Connors, and they are recruiting more people to challenge the elevated road. They are finding people through neighboring communities thanks to a social network site called NextDoor.com that connects people online based on their geographic proximity. Brian Narcum, a Stonegate resident opposed to the road, said it’s helped bring in hundreds of people in just a couple weeks.

And the focus, for now, will remain in lobbying county commissioners against the project, hoping that will be enough to discourage both the FDOT and the private builder IIP from moving forward.

“If you want to bring our area up to the next level, you have to be attractive to businesses and keep that interest in our urban development,” Amerson said. “You can’t put something like this elevated road down the heart of our county that is going to scar the road, and still expect people will want to move here and be next to that.”

To learn more about the local efforts to oppose the road, visit PascoFiasco.com.

Published Feb. 19, 2014

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