Proposed private toll road in Pasco County may catch criticism from environmental groups
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08/23/13 Janelle Irwin
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A new private toll road proposal in Pasco County could spark debate among environmentalists. They’re worried the long stretch of highway could lead to natural environments giving way to new development.

A company called International Infrastructure Partners submitted a proposal to lease state owned land for the project. Kris Carson is a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Transportation.

“What they would do is design, construct, operate and maintain a toll facility that would be along State Road 54 and State Road 56. Much of it would be elevated above the road, but there would be some areas where it would be at, what we call ‘at grade level’ or road level.”

Under the proposal, tax payers wouldn’t pay a dime for construction or maintenance. But environmentalists still might take issue. The local Sierra Club had opposed the construction of the Suncoast Parkway which opened in 2001. Phil Compton, a regional representative for the Sierra Club Florida, says toll roads encourage sprawl which hinder multi-modal transit.

“Our concern would be that creating another toll road means that they won’t create those choices for people and that the toll road won’t be designed in a way that allows it to work with a new transit system that would include rapid bus transit and possibly connection to light rail that would come from Hillsborough and Pinellas County.”

The road would span Pasco County from U.S. 19 and eventually to U.S. 301 and would cross areas that haven’t been developed. And even if construction doesn’t affect natural lands, Compton worries having a large highway through undeveloped areas would encourage new development and sprawl.

“I don’t know if that’s part of the plan here, but that was certainly the result of the construction of the Suncoast [Parkway] expressway. That’s something that Sierra Club opposed at the time. We called it a can opener to the countryside. The developer said, ‘oh no, it won’t happen that way,’ but they were wrong and we were right. It did happen that way. We’d hate to see that happen again.”

The pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay also has some concerns. Executive director Kevin Thurman wants officials to make sure they hash out a plan that ensures public transportation will be able to use the road.

“So, it might be worth investing along with or making a partnership to make sure that it is multi-modal for the long term.”

Thurman suggests things like bus toll lanes which would give public transportation a guaranteed travel time and charge cars a toll to use that lane based on congestion – the heavier the traffic, the more pricey the toll. Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson Carson says there will be a negotiation process.

“That’s something that I’m sure we would negotiate and talk with them about, but right now it’s really too early to say at that point.”

Due to state law, the department has to give other companies a chance to bid on the project. In this case, the Florida Department of Transportation will collect requests for proposals without a list of guidelines. Transportation officials say the plan would be entirely privately funded, but editor of a website about tolls, Peter Samuel, warns that could change.

“The lease of the land is liable to come with all kinds of very detailed conditions as to what is built there, on what terms and perhaps even the regime for setting the tolls will be part of a contract or a comprehensive agreement they often call it.”

Samuel covers news relating to toll roads across the U.S. and Canada. He went through a list of toll roads that have failed in sprawling areas like Pasco County.

“Fringe area toll roads, toll projects around the country have not done well in the past ten years and you have to admire investors who say they’re prepared to risk their money on a road like this.”

But Carson from the Florida Department of Transportation said motorists in Pasco would argue there is a need for more roads.

“Fifty-four is actually quite congested, so, this is really looking down the future and even potential growth and how can we plan right now for the future?”

But even if demand isn’t high enough and the project goes belly up, Samuel from Toll Road News said it wouldn’t hurt residents.

“The toll revenues cover the operating costs so, as far as the motorist is concerned, they go on much as before. It’s the investors who lent money who lose their shirts in these cases.”

Toll roads have been popping up all over the U.S. and many conservative leaning politicians push for federal funding of transportation to be phased out. But as more and more roads become pay-per-use, it begs the question, how will that affect prices of other things as trucks have to start paying more to get from one point to another? Connect Tampa Bay’s Thurman says it shouldn’t have an impact.

“Because congestion over time actually ends up costing significantly more to, say, a shipping company than the fixed cost of having to drive – the tolls that you would have to pay.”

The Florida Department of Transportation is accepting proposals until October 23. As of now, only one proposal has been submitted by a group called International Infrastructure Partners. The group declined to comment.

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