By Matt Wiley
As Wesley Chapel and the rest of Pasco County continues to grow and more vehicles travel area roads on a daily basis, more roadways will be needed to handle the larger volume of people traveling throughout the county, specifically east and west between New Port Richey and Wesley Chapel along the S.R. 54/56 corridor.
On February 14, the Pasco County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) heard the results of a transportation study that examined the possibilities for creating mass transit lines along the nearly 28-mile S.R. 54/56 corridor between U.S. 19 in New Port Richey and Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd. in Wesley Chapel. Among the options considered in the study are elevated lanes that would be reserved for toll lanes, express buses or a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which is similar to a light rail system.
The S.R. 54/56 corridor is a key arterial in the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA)’s Regional Transportation 2050 Master Plan. According to the TBARTA website, the plan was adopted in 2009 and includes future “priority projects” that connect regional transit for the seven counties in West Central Florida (Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota). The S.R. 54/56 corridor is the only “priority project” that remains solely in one county.
Mike Coleman, a representative and engineer from Jacksonville-based RS & H, Inc., which conducted the study, presented several “feasible alternatives,” including toll lanes at “grade” — meaning at the same elevation as the existing roadway — as well as elevated bus and toll lanes. Since the widening of the S.R. 54/56 corridor is capped at six lanes, Coleman presented elevated lanes as seemingly the only alternative, but with several options, none of which would be inexpensive to construct.
“In order to get (the project) built, it will take private funding,” said Pasco County Board of County Commissioners chairman Ted Schrader. The project could cost as much as $2 billion.
Coleman explained that the study examined several elevated alternatives, with tolls set at $0.14-per mile and $0.21-per mile, with either two or four elevated toll lanes in the median or on the shoulder of the corridor. Traveling the length of the corridor would cost drivers around $5 in each direction. There also is the option for an express bus to operate in one of the lanes in each direction.
Several Board members joked that they would gladly spend the $5 to get to New Port Richey from the eastern part of the county, rather than having to mess with all the stoplights along the corridor.
The study estimated that by 2035, if built, the S.R. 54/56 corridor could generate as much as $50 million per year in tolls, which, Coleman said, “is very attractive to private investors.”
Pasco planning and growth management administrator Richard Gehring explained that the Orlando area is being looked at as a model. “(Orlando) is way ahead with their use of toll roads,” Gehring said. “All this attention to managed lanes is really important.”
Coleman explained that a similar project was constructed along I-95 in Broward County, which saves drivers an estimated 20-25 minutes in drive time, as well as providing traffic congestion relief.
District 5 Commissioner Jack Mariano expressed funding concerns, which Schrader quickly addressed.
“Private capital firms have money in the hundreds of billions of dollars,” he explained. “These firms are looking for projects to invest in.”
Schrader stressed that moving forward, it is important to make clear that the taxpayers would not foot the bill for the project and that it would have to be constructed with either a P3 (public, private partnership) or completely through private funds.
“As long as we keep working our data, we’ll have more detailed information coming (to the MPO) in the future,” Gehring said. “Because it has the private funding option, (the project) seems more probable.”
For more information, and to see the TBARTA Master Plan, please visit TBARTA.com.