EAST COUNTY — The major players involved in easing traffic at Interstate 75 and University Parkway pooled their commitment and sat in the same room for the first time last week.
When the delegation returned from a morning meeting in Tallahassee March 6 — some traversing the very road network they have vowed to fix — they immediately worked to fulfill a directive by Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
Prasad said Sarasota and Manatee counties must commit firmly to both a diverging-diamond-style interchange to ease traffic at I-75 and University Parkway — and to improve the road network around it — by passing a formal resolution asking FDOT to build the interchange.
If the resolution succeeds, the state transportation agency vows to begin construction before the 2017 World Rowing Championships — but after the October opening of the Mall at University Town Center.
“I want a firm commitment for all the pieces of the puzzle,” Prasad said. “I am looking for a holistic approach, not piecemeal, for a full network of road improvements.”
Specifically, FDOT will try to raise about $60 million for accelerated construction of the interchange, with the goal to fund it within the next two years.
FDOT has said in the past that it does not have any money earmarked for the diverging-diamond interchange until after 2021.
Local officials previously were hesitant to begin construction during the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Nathan Benderson Park, for fear it would interfere.
But a recent push led by Rep. Greg Steube fast-tracked the plan.
Steube met with Prasad privately in the weeks leading to the group meeting.
The local delegation traveled to Tallahassee March 6 to join them.
The delegation included Ed Hunzeker and Thomas Harmer, county administrators from Manatee and Sarasota counties, respectively; Manatee County District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh; Sarasota County Commission Chairman Charles Hines; Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO Rex Jensen and Vice President of Planning Todd Pokrywa; Todd Mathes, of Benderson Development; and transportation experts from both counties.
As part of its plan to build south of University Parkway, SMR, Lakewood Ranch’s developer, has a large role in improving the overall road network with commitments that have been planned for years.
SMR has already committed to help fund the following road improvements:
• The continuation of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard as a four-lane roadway from its current ending at Communications Parkway to Fruitville Road;
• The continuation of Lorraine Road as a four-lane road from University Parkway to Fruitville Road; and
• The construction of an east-west connector from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to Lorraine Road.
SMR has also pledged up to $7.5 million for a proportionate-share road project that gives Sarasota County one of two options: It can put the money toward an east-west connector overpass from SMR’s planned Villages of Lakewood Ranch South project over Interstate 75 and Cattleman Road; or it can use it to build a two-lane road between Fruitville Road and Palmer Boulevard.
If the interchange plans are accelerated, construction on University could be underway during the rowing championships, an event that is expected to bring more than 42,000 travelers to the region.
To ease traffic around Nathan Benderson Park and the Mall at UTC, Benderson Development, which helped develop both projects, has made $20 million in improvements to existing roads, including the Cattleman Road extension to Fruitville Road.
Mathes, Benderson’s director of development, says those roads are underutilized and will have to assume more of the load when the mall opens.
He said Cattleman Road absorbs about 2,000 cars per day today, even though it has the capacity to serve 30,000 to 40,000 per day.
“We anticipate that as the mall opens, drivers will find alternative routes,” Mathes said. “You will see more cars on Cattleman Road. And, we have signage on I-75 that helps distribute drivers to that roadway.”
Both counties have begun the process of writing a formal resolution that would ease the traffic load in the future.
Jim Harriott, an engineer with Sarasota County who attended the meeting in Tallahassee, expects staff to draft a resolution for commissioners to consider late this month or in early April.
“From Sarasota’s side, this is no different than what we were working on before,” Harriott said. “The road network has been on paper for years. Lakewood Ranch just hasn’t developed south of University yet.”
Harriott said Sarasota County has begun reviewing amended documents for SMR’s Villages of Lakewood Ranch South.
If Sarasota commissioners approve them, it will permit SMR to begin residential construction on the 5,500-acre project located south of University Parkway and west of I-75 — and kick-start the related road improvements.
Although it has no financial stake in most of the planned road improvements, Manatee County is acting aggressively, as well.
Hunzeker traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to talk about transportation as part of an annual long-range planning discussion with the federal government.
“If the feds pushed money our way, we wouldn’t turn it down,” Hunzeker said. “It seems everybody involved is committed to moving this forward as soon as possible.”
The Florida Department of Transportation has long planned a diverging-diamond-style configuration for the interchange at University Parkway and Interstate 75.
Different than the traditional off-ramps used in Florida, the diverging-diamond design would be the first of its kind in the state.
Transportation officials say the interchange will shorten wait time at red lights and improve safety.
Kevin Ingle, a project engineer for FDOT, previously told the East County Observer: “This is the ultimate interchange. It puts traffic on the opposite side of the road on University and eliminates two phases of the signal. Drivers won’t be spending as much time at red and yellow lights. This makes it more efficient.”
Todd Mathes, of Benderson Development, says he drove a diverging-diamond interchange at the Mall of America in Minnesota and others in the Midwest.
“It’s a very intuitive design,” Mathes said. “When you drive through one, you are just a driver on the street. It’s smoother and simpler than it looks.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].