The crowd was there to speak, not to listen.
After spending nearly an hour hearing why some Pasco County leaders like planning and development administrator Richard Gehring were still open to exploring the possibility of an elevated toll road along the State Road 54/56 corridor, hundreds of people gathered at a town hall meeting at Sunlake High School Monday night interrupted, shouted and booed over scheduled speakers.
And their goal was clear: No elevated toll road.
“This needs to have community support, and the presentation (from county officials) was very demeaning,” one resident said. “Everything has already been decided.”
It was supposed to be just another one of several town hall meetings Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey had organized for constituents: She would bring members of the county staff with her to discuss various issues, and then listen to the attendees and get their feedback.
This meeting, however, served as a prelude to official public interaction over the elevated toll road and overall county transportation plan that’s set to kick off Saturday at The Shops at Wiregrass.
Even with a microphone, speakers like Gehring struggled to talk over the unruly crowd. When one man interrupted him after shouting from the audience, Gehring tried to keep some sort of order.
“Sir … could we have …” Gehring said before getting interrupted again. “Public dialogue requires civility. Let me try and ask you for it.”
International Infrastructure Partners, which submitted an unsolicited proposal last year to privately build the elevated toll road in Pasco County, has not even actually bid on such a project yet, and is still early in negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation, Starkey said.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said. “But we all need to know, at least in my mind, what our alternatives are” to the road if it’s not built.
Some of the talk from the crowd is to keep moving such an east-west connector north, just like residents in Hillsborough County have successfully done over the years. One idea would be to build a higher-capacity road along State Road 52, which virtually runs parallel to State Road 54 in the northern part of the county.
“We do have a problem: We have to have an east-west road,” said Christie Zimmer, a member of the Pasco County Citizens’ Advisory Committee. “I’m absolutely 100 percent opposed for that to happen in the State Road 54/56 corridor, but if we look at the 52 corridor, the cost is substantially less.”
Such a road, she said, would not just serve the travelers from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, but it would help bring Hernando County into the fold on a road where not so much development has happened.
At one point, Gehring rebutted a comment that an elevated road would depress property values along the corridor, using the Selmon Expressway as an example in Hillsborough County. There, he said, property values are actually on the rise — a statement that was met with jeers from the audience.
While there was a lot of interruptions from the audience, it did seem at least one person was listening. Ken Littlefield, a Republican candidate for Pasco County Commission seeking to replace Pat Mulieri, failed to take a position on the elevated road during a Republican debate last week. But now, the former state legislator says he has all the information he needs.
“If there is one thing that I detest, it’s an unsolicited call,” Littlefield said. “Every evening, between 5 and 7 p.m., our telephone rings, and every now and then, I will not recognize the number and I’ll pick it up. They’ll start an unsolicited call, and I will hang it up.
“Ladies and gentlemen, what I think we need to do on this unsolicited bid is hang up.”
Read more about this meeting and this weekend’s transportation presentation at The Shops at Wiregrass in the March 19 print edition of The Laker/Lutz News.