The biggest obstacle in the way of an elevated road connecting the east and west sides of Pasco County is public education.
At least that’s what Pasco County Commissioners stated last week just before signaling their support of the Florida Department of Transportation’s continued study into an unsolicited bid that would build upward on the State Road 54/56 corridor.
“I definitely don’t think the public understands what we are talking about,” Commissioners Kathryn Starkey said. “We need to go out to the community, get their input, and let them see what their options are. When I go to them, I see a lot of misunderstanding and misconception, and a lot of understandable objections. But they don’t know what we know. They don’t get to sit up here and see the traffic projections and understand what the alternatives are.”
International Infrastructure Partners Inc. has proposed building a 33-mile elevated toll road down the center of the State Road 54/56 corridor, similar to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Hillsborough County, using private money to fund it. The ultimate decision on whether it happens lies with FDOT, but the state agency wanted the county’s OK before moving forward.
Richard Gehring, Pasco’s planning and development administrator, said one of the main misconceptions is that businesses and homes along the corridor would face giant walls, similar to what’s happened in the elevated portions of U.S. 19 in Pinellas County. However, a completely elevated road could have far less negative aesthetic impact than many realize.
“You could have view lines across the roadway,” Gehring said. “That condition could be enhanced by landscaping and night lighting to soften up the overall infrastructure.”
Gehring showed a rendering of what he thinks State Road 54 could look like from the ground level. The elevated road was about 20 feet high, but the supports were covered in topiary-like vegetation, and businesses across the road were quite visible.
“Have you reached out to the chambers to show them how this road could look?” Commissioner Pat Mulieri asked Gehring after seeing the images. “The elevated road has caused such an uproar since they think it would have this blank wall that would destroy businesses. But this is a totally different concept.”
But not all the commissioners were anxious to move forward with more studies of the elevated road. Commissioner Henry Wilson said he moves through traffic just fine.
“I spend very little time in congestion here in Pasco County,” he said. “The congestion is when I get into Hillsborough County. This is going to benefit the Pinellas and Hillsborough drivers more than it benefits our people, our citizens.”
Although Gehring demonstrated 17 other road options that were carefully considered instead of an elevated road — including the construction of a 20-lane surface highway through the middle of Pasco — both Wilson and Commissioner Ted Schrader felt there could be other alternatives outside of the corridor that could move traffic east and west.
That could include Ridge Road, which Schrader said might not have even been considered by FDOT since it is a county road and not a state one. Elevating that road and connecting it to Interstate 75 could be a possibility.
Gehring, however, said that would still only move traffic over the Suncoast Parkway, and would not connect the east and west sides of the county with an expressway option. And such an option will be needed within the next 30 years if the county doesn’t want to stunt its growth.
In the end, however, commissioners approved a resolution giving their support to more studies on a proposed elevated road unanimously.
The elevated road is still quite a ways away, if it ever happens. A member of Gehring’s team said ground could be broken within seven years at the earliest, although Schrader said it would be more like 10 years if everything goes as planned.