Regional beltway runs into skepticism

County commissioners question the value and environmental pitfalls of the proposed 70-mile road.

Published August 22, 2006

NEW PORT RICHEY — A skeptical County Commission on Tuesday questioned the value and environmental trouble a proposed regional beltway could bring Pasco County.

Unlike the 6-1 vote by the Hillsborough County Commission this month supporting the concept, Pasco commissioners took no vote.

“I find some of the benefits to be questionable and some of the environmental concerns to be underestimated,”  commission Chairman Steve Simon said.

The 70-mile beltway advocated by the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority would run east and west across Pasco, linking it to Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties. Advocates who came before the  commission Tuesday said it could decrease traffic on existing roads and highways.

But early maps show it cutting through and around environmentally sensitive land such as the Cypress Creek Wellfield in central Pasco, provoking stiff reactions from environmental advocates. The well field provides drinking water to Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

“That’s a horribly designed project,” said Dan Rametta of Lutz, a leader of the Citizens for Sanity activist group. “It should be renamed the sprawl loop.”

Ralph Mervine, executive director of the authority, said he is confident the beltway can dodge the well field and other conservation lands. The authority could return in six months with a more defined proposal for the Pasco commission to vote on, he said.

He and other supporters said Hillsborough officials had been given beltway information earlier than their Pasco counterparts, and a Pasco vote had not been in the plans.

The proposed beltway is supposed to be done by 2015 and financed as a toll road. No cost estimates have been offered.

Don Skelton, regional secretary for the state Transportation Department, and state Sen. Jim Sebesta of St. Petersburg both praised the proposal to commissioners Tuesday. Skelton also suggested there would be no overlap with a state proposal for a 150-mile, 10-county expressway projected in 30 to 50 years.

“We may not need a new beltway today, but I think we definitely need it in the years to come,” said Sebesta, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Their pitch has potential sweeteners for Pasco. One is connecting to the Ridge Road extension, which Pasco has failed to accomplish the past 20 years.

Mervine acknowledged tying the Ridge Road extension into the beltway proposal could help Pasco attempts to get approval for the road from federal and state agencies. In an interview Monday, County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said that could be a big help — but wasn’t ready to go ahead.

“We’re not ready to sprinkle holy water on it yet,” she said.

At this point, the expressway authority has no impact on the evaluation for the Ridge Road extension, said Mike Nowicki, a permit reviewer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The county has yet to fully satisfy the corps on the environmental compensation package for the project, Nowicki said.

Another test route for the regional beltway follows State Road 54. State transportation officials have proposed building an elevated route on 54, Mervin said, a design that could solve problems securing a right of way and quell environmental objections.

But County Commissioner Ted Schrader suggested the beltway would cause unwanted growth in Pasco, long a Tampa bedroom community. The county is trying to limit development in traditionally rural east Pasco.

“It looks to me like it’s going to be serving more of the needs of the Tampa-Hillsborough County area more so than Pasco County,” Schrader said.

Mervine said growth is already there.

According to the authority, the average daily traffic at various points along the route in Pasco ranged from 14,000 to 53,000 vehicles. That demand is based on developments already approved in the county, Mervine said.

In interviews, leaders of central Pasco’s two biggest developments said the beltway could be a boon, depending on its eventual size and location.

Stewart Gibbons, president of 5,000-acre Connerton, said his views would depend on the size of the proposed beltway through central Pasco.

“If it’s a full-fledged toll road (running through Connerton); it would be a very significant concern for us,” he said.

“But, my guess is, the amount of traffic from the coast to (Interstate) 75 might not be enough to justify a large toll road.”

Don Whyte, president of Newland Communities’ southeast operations, expressed similar concern about the beltway’s effects on its 7,000-acre Bexley Ranch development. He said the road seems more likely to ride on the Ridge Road extension than cut through Bexley.

“(But) it’s hard to get it in the minds of potential residents, and I’m a believer that residents should know exactly what they’re getting into,” he said.