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East County Wednesday, Apr. 28, 2021 5 months ago

Manatee County commissioners swerve to meet road needs

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Commissioners prioritize three East County road projects previously not on 5-year plan.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Three major road projects in East County that were not previously listed in Manatee County’s five-year capital improvement plan were pushed ahead to the design phase unanimously by county commissioners at an April 20 meeting.

The three projects are the widening of a 2.8-mile stretch of Lorraine Road from State Road 64 to 59th Avenue East from two lanes to four; widening of a 2.6-mile stretch of Upper Manatee River Road from State Road 64 to Fort Hamer Bridge from two lanes to four; and an extension of Lena Road by about a half-mile to create a continuous route from S.R. 64 to State Road 70.

These projects primarily will help accomplish alleviation of traffic congestion. Commissioner George Kruse said traffic is already bad enough, but with more population growth headed to the area, it is crucial to ensure the county plans to install proper infrastructure to support it. Commissioner Vanessa Baugh agreed.

“We need to make sure that we figure out a grid and a system that will keep our traffic flowing, so people are not tied up on our roads who need to be going to work or who need to pick up the kids from school.”

These three projects are part of a list of 10 across the county that were accelerated into the 2021 fiscal year so design work and funding can begin as soon as possible.

“As our population grows, we're seeing the necessity in different roads that we really hadn't anticipated,” Baugh said. “So that's why you're seeing some of the roads that are not on the CIP move forward.”

Manatee County commissioners prioritize three East County road projects that weren't previously on the county's five-year plan: widening for Lorraine Road and Upper Manatee River Road and extension for Lena Road.

As part of the decision-making process, commissioners individually ranked road projects based on how they thought the projects should be prioritized. Those rankings were then translated into a system with three tiers, with Tier 1 including the highest priorities and Tier 3 the lowest. The Lena Road extension and Upper Manatee River Road widening both jumped all the way to Tier 1, while the Lorraine Road widening was placed in Tier 2.

The tiers are still subject to minor changes, but this ranking represents the clearest picture given by commissioners about which road projects they think need to be started as soon as possible.

The 10 accelerated projects will add $4,839,500 to the 2021 budget, according to county documents, though that is a fraction of the necessary cost to complete the projects. For example, the Lorraine Road project carries an estimated cost of $38.1 million.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said some roads that were not on the county's capital improvement plan have been accelerated to high-priority projects because growth has happened in unanticipated areas.

To fund these projects, the commissioners voted unanimously to use Financial Advisor Wendell Gaertner of Public Resources Advisory Group to solicit bids from banks for a $40 million line of credit to be used on general government projects.

Manatee County Financial Management Director Jan Brewer said line of credit was a strong loan option because interest rates are lower than those of bonds and other loan options at the moment. Brewer said another advantage to using a line of credit is its flexibility, which will be especially valuable while a large number of projects are still in the design phase.

Other loans, such as bonds, are often issued for specific projects with specific repayment deadlines. The county will likely explore bonds as a loan option once construction is ready to begin on individual projects and the line of credit is repaid, according to Brewer and commissioners. The bonds would eventually be paid off through the county’s infrastructure sales tax, impact fees and possibly federal funding, according to Commissioner Vanessa Baugh.

Commissioner George Kruse said the county needs to do as many road projects as it can now to get ahead of the rapidly rising cost of construction.

By using a line of credit to move the county’s road priorities into the design phase, Administrator Scott Hopes said the county will more quickly move through its queue of projects. This is important because construction costs are rising rapidly.

“Math is math,” Kruse said. “It's cheaper to take out the money and build now than it will be to wait and build later. And then you get the benefit of having the stuff built.”

Hopes said another advantage to using a line of credit to secure funds for the project is getting ahead of other counties. As local governments figure out what types of infrastructure projects can be constructed using money from the federal government’s Great American Rescue Plan, Hopes said there could be competition for construction companies and materials. (Manatee County will receive $78.2 million from the federal stimulus package.)

Windsong Acres residents Howard Duff lives along Upper Manatee River Road. He has been advocating for the road to be widened to help with traffic congestion for years. File photo.

Hopes said it will be difficult to secure the services of private companies if projects aren’t designed and ready for construction. Commissioner Misty Servia agreed.

“That is what I fear is going to trip us up,” Servia said. “It is a race.”

Designing a road project typically takes at least 12 months, according to Manatee County Public Works Director Chad Butzow. Baugh said she hopes construction will begin on some of the accelerated projects by the end of 2022 and into 2023-24.

“I think they're going to be expedited as quickly as they possibly can,” Baugh said.

Another project the commissioners added to Tier 1 is the installation of a traffic signal at the intersection of Lorraine Road and Players Drive, which will likely come with turn lane improvements. The cost of the project is projected at $1.7 million. Design work is scheduled to begin during the 2022 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

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Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

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