NEW PORT RICHEY — County transportation planners barely mentioned the proposed elevated toll road over State Road 54/56 in their presentation Thursday regarding an update to the county’s long range transportation plan, but the controversial project still dominated the meeting and the discussion.
Commissioners, who serve on the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, asked staff to give more serious consideration to building the Ridge Road extension as an elevated toll road and extending it all the way to Interstate 75 as an alternative route. The county has been attempting to get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Ridge Road for more than a decade — and that doesn’t include any segments east of U.S. 41.
Still, it was good news for toll road opponents eager to hear commissioners discuss any options other than building an elevated highway in the median of S.R. 54.
“I’m encouraged, honestly, about the options discussed today,” said Rich Connors, who founded the opposition group Pasco Fiasco. “I just think maybe it’s time to put this elevated toll road to bed.”
The Florida Department of Transportation is in negotiations with a consortium headed by Spanish construction firm, OHL, to build and operate the state’s first private toll road on the 33-mile corridor between U.S. 19 and U.S. 301. DOT Consultant Frank Chupka said the agency is still waiting for the firm’s feasibility study and designs, which has been delayed several weeks because department officials told the firm to look at other design alternatives.
The firm initially presented one option: an elevated road similar to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. “We told them they don’t like what you’ve got — you need to give us more,” Chupka said.
But the company has no interest in the Ridge Road project, he said. “They’re looking at multiple alternatives, but only within in the 54 corridor.”
Chupka said he hopes to get the report by the end of the month, so OHL can hold its first public meeting in late spring.
Pasco Fiasco leader Jason Amerson said the people who oppose the project aren’t interested in alternative designs. “These meetings with OHL – they’re not needed,” he said. “We reject the concept in all forms.”
Michele Sakalian, who said S.R. 54 is practically in her backyard, put Chupka on the spot. “Is it still true that if county commissioners do not approve this project, will you, the FDOT, not proceed? Is that still true?”
Chupka said he has received some emails from citizens who support the project, but the overwhelming response has been negative.
“We don’t want to put the burden on (the commissioners) to make the decision,” he said. “But if we don’t get public support, we’re not going to do it.”