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County asks for study of toll lanes
Pasco wants to know if adding express lanes to Interstate 75 is feasible.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP, Times Staff Writer
Published August 21, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - Pasco County has asked Florida's Turnpike Enterprise to study the possibility of adding toll lanes, called "express lanes," to Interstate 75, officials from both agencies said.
The study, requested by county officials July 18, is expected to take a year, a turnpike planner said.
So far, the authority doesn't yet have answers to critical questions: how many express lanes, where they would begin and end, and how much the tolls might cost.
But the state Department of Transportation has signaled that while it's open to the idea, it plans to keep six lanes of the interstate toll-free.
As traffic managers confront ballooning road-building costs and shrinking budgets, new ideas like these are getting the welcome mat on drawing boards across Tampa Bay.
Last week, a Hillsborough county commissioner floated a proposal to erect toll booths on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and County Line Road.
Express lanes are typically added toward the median of the highway.
"The express lanes - the number of which we can't identify now - don't have as much access to on-ramp and off-ramp turbulence," said David Wood, a planner with the authority.
Because the Pasco section of I-75 is dominated by commuter traffic, the idea is to price the tolls according to the time of day.
"During the busiest time, the fee is increased, to ensure the level of service is actually express service," Wood said.
It's called "congestion pricing," a policy that's seen variations in traffic-clogged cities from London to Singapore to Manhattan, he said.
In the United States, State Road 91 in Orange County, Calif., was the first to build toll lanes alongside non-toll lanes, Wood said.
In Florida, state officials are exploring Hot Lanes - the acronym stands for "High Occupancy and Toll" - for I-95 in Miami-Dade County. But in the Pasco study, the state agency hasn't been involved yet.
"We never had formal meetings on it. However, we might have discussed it," said Don Skelton, the state's district manager in the Tampa Bay area. "There is the general philosophy that if we have to widen more than six lanes, all options have to be examined and nothing is off the table."
The express lanes would be "above and beyond" the planned expansion to six lanes, Wood said.
Kris Carson, the department's spokeswoman, said FDOT plans to hold a public meeting Sept. 13 on ideas for improvements to the I-75 corridor from Fowler Avenue in Tampa to State Road 52 in Pasco.
Wood said the study does not include Hillsborough County, which hasn't requested one from the authority.
Hillsborough officials haven't heard about Pasco's study. County Commissioner Rose Ferlita said she's heard the idea in concept, but thought it would be "a little ways before it gets here."
Bob Campbell, the county's transportation chief, said Pasco had not asked Hillsborough to join the study.
"It takes a lengthy period of time and a lot of public involvement for something like that," he said. "We'd like to see a multimodal, coordinated solution. We do need new roads. If they want to entertain a conversation, we'd be open to it."
The state can't fund its $74-million plan to widen I-75 between Fowler Avenue and Bruce B. Downs, from four to six lanes. The same goes for adding two lanes to I-75 from Bruce B. Downs to State Road 56, which would cost $82-million. Last month, Pasco tried but failed to convince developers of the nearby Wiregrass Ranch to kick in funds for part of that project.
Money problems are prompting creative solutions everywhere. Turnpike officials recently completed a similar study for express lanes on I-75 in Collier and Lee counties, Wood said. In Pasco, it's not the first time toll proposals have originated from county offices.
In April, county officials held out the possibility of turning the Ridge Road extension into an 8.5-mile toll road.
Turnpike planners are also studying that project, and expect to wrap up their findings this fall.
But the preliminary sense is that Pasco's southern portion of the I-75 still does not have enough traffic to warrant toll lanes, Baker said.
Wood said Pasco sees heavy jams during peak hours - southward in the mornings and northward in the evenings - but it could take longer periods of congestion before express lanes are justified.
"Until you have urban congestion- the kind of thing you typically see on the I-275 in Tampa or I-95 in Miami, where you have four- to five-hour peaks - that is the kind of congestion that would make people drive on toll lanes," Wood said.
Among other things, the Pasco study would also look into average incomes, types of trips and percentage of commuters on local stretches of I-75, he said.
"We may not be there yet, but we've asked them to study it," Baker said.