Jason Amerson was caught flat-footed when he first learned that a private company planned to build an estimated $2.2 billion elevated toll road in front of his Stonegate home.
He vowed to stop the road before the first surveys could even be done. And over the weekend, Amerson finally had a chance to celebrate when Florida Department of Transportation secretary Ananth Prasad officially killed the project.
But as vocal as Amerson’s group, Pasco Fiasco, had become to protest the project, it was actually International Infrastructure Partners who hastened its own demise when it shifted gears and started to ask FDOT for taxpayer assistance to fund the project. That was just too much for Prasad to hear, especially with public sentiment against the road growing.
“He came to the conclusion that the project does not look very promising,” FDOT spokesman Dick Kane said last week. “The reason, he said, was that when they looked into the financials of the unsolicited proposal, it was not what we were initially led to believe.”
When Kane shared Prasad’s thoughts, the toll road project was not dead, but it was dying. Pasco Fiasco moved forward with a planned rally at Sunlake High School for next Monday. The door had been left open for more negotiations, but all of it came to an abrupt end last Friday.
“The department was unable to reach an agreement with International Infrastructure Partners LLC on a framework of financing and various design concepts for the corridor that would be acceptable to all parties and address the concerns of the local community,” Prasad said in a release Friday. “In absence of this framework, advancing this project would not make any sense.”
That decision forced Pasco Fiasco to make one of its own, indefinitely postponing the planned rally, which was being funded from the pockets of its members. Even if the rally had gone forward, it would’ve been money well spent, Amerson said.
“We all are finding that with every dollar we spend, we’re going to get a return of 10 times that in home value savings,” Amerson said. “I’d rather spend $200 now than $40,000 to $50,000 in home value losses later.”
International Infrastructure Partners, or IIP, first expressed an interest in building what would’ve been Florida’s first private toll road in June 2013. It submitted a proposal to FDOT, which controls the rights of way along the State Road 54/56 corridor between Zephyrhills and New Port Richey, where it would build a 33-mile expressway similar to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa. Using private money, IIP would collect tolls from travelers to help pay for the cost. All they needed was FDOT to give up the rights of way along the corridor to make it happen.
Yet, throughout the process, FDOT made it clear they would not move forward without the blessing of Pasco County, although it didn’t officially need it. County commissioners gave a blessing late last year to study the proposal more, but in February, Commissioner Henry Wilson came out against the project. He was joined in April by commission chair Jack Mariano.
However, this might not be the end for Pasco Fiasco.
“We’re not high-fiving each other or doing our end zone victory dances just yet,” Amerson said.
County administrator Michele Baker said even with the elevated toll road gone, something is going to have to be done with the corridor as more and more cars look to go east and west through southern Pasco.
“Pasco County will continue to engage the public and move forward with its analyses and studies in order to determine how to manage future congestion on the State Road 54/56 corridor,” Baker said in a statement last week.
That means taking a close look at the long-range transportation plan, which is set for adoption in December.
Richard Connors, one of the founders of Pasco Fiasco, says that means there’s more work ahead of them.
“It’s a victory,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Published May 14, 2014