Pasco County Commissioners are being asked to give an early blessing to a proposed elevated road project along the State Road 54/56 corridor … and they just might do it.
A nonbinding resolution about the unsolicited proposal was part of the commission’s Tuesday meeting, which took place before The Laker/Lutz News press deadline. The goal was to help Florida Department of Transportation officials get a clear look at where commissioners stand on the project that could exceed $2 billion. That is, even though the commission’s approval is not necessary for it to move forward.
“What DOT wants to know is if we’re still onboard doing this thing,” said Richard Gehring, the county’s planning and development administrator. “The DOT and the county have a lot of partnering history in putting this together and working on it. And basically, we already have $1 million out there in the corridor with detailed studies we’ve done there.”
International Infrastructure Partners Inc. brought the idea of building a 33-mile elevated road — similar to what was constructed over the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Hillsborough County — earlier this year. It would be primarily a private venture, with IIP earning long-term profits through tolls.
FDOT had originally set a deadline of last October to receive competing proposals on such a project, but delayed it just ahead of the deadline until Dec. 9 after IIP asked for more time.
Part of that reason was because the Urban Land Institute, the independent growth and development analytical group that is studying the future of Pasco County, had reportedly advised against the project.
Yet, ULI’s recommendation may have been a bit premature, Gehring said.
“They raised the question, wondering if we’ve exhausted all alternatives, and they raised a bunch of study issues,” Gehring said. “But what they didn’t know is that we already had two-and-a-half years of efforts already underway.”
ULI leans toward the development design structure of “New Urbanism,” Gehring said, which emphasizes pedestrians and de-emphasizes vehicle traffic. But what IIP has proposed is much different — allowing the corridor to maintain localized traffic while providing viable options for those trying to traverse the region.
“They said that some communities were taking down their elevated roads, but those were specialized circumstances,” Gehring said. “They were one-, two- or three-mile sections in downtowns that were built years and years and years ago. This is nothing like that.”
Whether the elevated road is the way FDOT and the county goes or not is not going to change the fact that something has to be done to move traffic, Gehring said. Intersections like U.S. 41 and State Road 54 already see 100,000 vehicles each day, and that’s only going to grow as the corridor grows.
“At some point, 140,000 or 150,000 cars per day are going to need to be in that corridor, and that’s going to be both a blessing and a curse,” Gehring said.
The Metropolitan Planning Organization developed a long-range transportation plan in 2008 that warned the State Road 54/56 corridor could require up to 20 travel lanes to accommodate future vehicles in a little more than 20 years. The group later earmarked $800 million for improvements to the corridor that could include toll-based roads and elevated sections.
The resolution considered by the commission also shared an FDOT study completed earlier this year that looked at 18 highway and transit improvement alternatives for the corridor, eliminating anything additional built at the same level as the existing road. Its recommendation was to go up, possibly with four elevated lanes.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who has been a proponent of the elevated road, told The Laker/Lutz News last week she planned to support the resolution. By passing it, FDOT and other agencies will get the support it needs for more studies that would define the concept’s revenue potential costs, environmental impacts, explore more possible private-public partnerships, and seek out more public input.
Although IIP has not provided any cost projections for the project, using the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway elevated road as a model from 2004, construction could cost more than $70 million per mile. That would put the total price tag well over $2.3 billion.
The question is no longer if to build something like this elevated road, but when, Gehring said.
“If someone out there has another way to solve this, we would be very glad to listen,” he said.
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