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    Suncoast Parkway light on traffic

    In its first year, the new toll road falls short of revenue projections. But it is heavy on development as homes sprout up along it.

    By DAN DeWITT and JAMES THORNER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 3, 2002


    The Powell Road overpass in southern Hernando County overlooks a half-mile stretch of the Suncoast Parkway toll road.

    On some mornings, five or six cars and trucks can be seen zipping up and down the freeway. Often, there are fewer. And occasionally, in both directions, all that is visible is empty black asphalt.

    But the land around the parkway in Pasco and Hernando counties also offers views of bulldozers clearing land for residential and commercial development and of construction crews framing houses and laying concrete block.

    These observations tell the basic story of the 42-mile Suncoast Parkway one year after its first stretch opened to traffic.

    Statistics from the state Turnpike District indicate that traffic has been unexpectedly light. But the promise of easy access to Tampa and St. Petersburg has, as anticipated, encouraged home sales and building in both counties.

    "It's the best I've seen it in 13 years," said Jack Gavish, a Brooksville real estate broker describing the housing market in Hernando County. Though he is not certain how much the parkway is responsible, Gavish said land prices have rocketed upward during the past two years.

    "Properties that were four or five grand an acre are now seven or eight grand," he said.

    The road's revenue and ridership numbers are less impressive.

    Turnpike officials expected to collect $14.8-million during the highway's first year of operation. But during the first 11 months, which ended in December, the total take was $6.7-million.

    Parkway spokeswoman Joanne Hurley offered several reasons for the disparity.

    The road's main tollbooths did not open until several weeks after the road did, she said. The northern 10 miles of the parkway, from State Road 50 to U.S. 98 near the Citrus County line, did not open until August. And its main tollbooth did not begin operating until September.

    That makes statistics about the road's first eight months of operation almost meaningless, according to a written statement from the Turnpike District.

    But even in recent months, revenue and ridership have lagged behind projected daily averages.

    During the parkway's first year, the district expected an average of 17,600 vehicles a day to pass through the Anclote toll plaza in southern Pasco County.

    The daily average was 13,200 in December.

    At the Spring Hill plaza in northern Pasco, the expected ridership was 13,200. The actual number was 9,300.

    Interviews with riders during the first year suggest parkway tolls of up to $3 continue to dampen traffic, particularly if drivers have alternative routes to their destinations.

    Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach lawyer who represented the Sierra Club in its unsuccessful fight to stop the road, said ridership is far below the numbers used to justify the road's construction.

    In 1992, the consulting firm URS Greiner Woodward Clyde said the parkway would take in $70-million in tolls in its first year of operation.

    That estimate dropped to $31-million in early 1995. Later that year, after the new Veterans Expressway began to fall behind its revenue projections, the number dropped to $19.7-million.

    The Turnpike District said that was its official estimate.

    By 2000, it was $14.8-million.

    A year ago, Terry Denham, the since-retired director of planning and programming for the Turnpike District, said the first estimate was imprecise. The numbers became more exact, he said, when URS knew the revenue would have to support bonds.

    "The difference between $70-million and $15-million is the difference between looking out and saying, "Hey, there could be a lot of money out there for this thing,' and getting down to decide whether we really want to go into this business," Denham said.

    Other turnpike officials said that several projects, including the Veterans, started slowly but were able to build up ridership. In December, the number of riders on the Veterans Expressway exceeded the anticipated average for the 2001-02 fiscal year.

    History suggests ridership on the Suncoast also will improve, fueled by increased development.

    "These projects take a while to ramp up," Hurley said.

    But Blackner said this pattern proves her basic argument: that the district builds roads not to satisfy an existing need, as it has long insisted, but to help power development that comes to depend on the turnpike projects.

    Because of that, she said, the district should not proceed with plans to extend the road through Citrus County.

    "They paint sky-high traffic projections, and they drop them. Then they drop them again. Then they drop them again," she said.

    State law sets a basic standard to determine the demand for a road. By its fifth year of operation, tolls from the parkway must equal half the annual debt payment. For the Suncoast, that figure is $15.2-million. Considering the road's actual revenue so far, Blackner said, it has a long way to go.

    "This road was built on the lie that it was necessary," she said. "The purpose of the Suncoast is not to solve traffic problems . . . (but to) open up Pasco and Hernando to massive suburbanization."

    That transformation had begun even before the first tires rolled down the highway last year.

    New home construction is one sign of the parkway's arrival. The Hernando Development Department issued 1,335 permits during 2001, an increase of about 20 percent over 2000.

    Pasco's 3,859 single-family home permits represented its highest total since 1979, though most of the houses were built far enough away from the parkway to attribute the growth to other factors.

    The Starkey family, whose cattle ranch once sprawled across thousands of acres of Pasco, started a residential development called Longleaf near State Road 54 on the assumption the parkway would bring buyers to its doorstep.

    The parkway has fulfilled expectations. Although the Starkeys have yet to complete a survey of their first 80 home buyers, a solid core of their customers rely on the toll road to reach work.

    "It's been a great benefit to us," Jay B. "Trey" Starkey III said. "We're able to tap into the Hillsborough market much more readily than before."

    The Starkeys are just one small fin on a very large whale.

    On the 5-mile stretch of SR 54 east of the parkway, developers have rezoned or are in the process of rezoning thousands of acres that could eventually hold more than 8,000 new homes.

    A large office park called Suncoast Crossings has claimed most of the land around the SR 54/parkway interchange. Tampa International Airport is less than a half-hour drive to the south.

    Three miles east, developers Nick and Peter Geraci have proposed building, sometime after 2010, a regional mall to rival in size any in the Tampa Bay area.

    The growth spurt would be even greater were it not for the fight over the Ridge Road Extension that would link west and central Pasco. The eight-lane highway is supposed to intersect the parkway in central Pasco, but an environmental challenge has postponed construction.

    Growth along the toll road in Hernando has been slower but still significant, said Jerry Greif, Hernando's chief planner.

    "Almost everybody who comes in and talks to us mentions that they think this is going to be the next major growth area because of the parkway," he said.

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