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East County Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021 5 months ago

Priority shifts to Manatee County road projects

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Lena Road, Lorraine Road projects could be advanced by commissioners.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Manatee County commissioners have stated their desire to make road construction a top priority in the next year.

However, they said deciding which projects come first and how to pay for those projects is more difficult.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said her top priority is to create a safer alignment of Verna Road and Verna Bethany Road at State Road 70 near Myakka City. The two roads connect with S.R. 70 less than a quarter-mile from each other and she said both intersections are dangerous.

The project is listed on Manatee County's capital improvement plan with $2,519,682 in funding. It is estimated for completion in Dec. 2023.

“We've had horrible accidents at Verna Bethany and Verna at State Road 70," Baugh said. "To the point that we have had so many people who have been extremely, seriously injured.”

Aligning the roads would include a traffic signal or roundabout to be placed at the new intersection.

Her second priority is an extension of Lena Road, which is not on the 5-year plan, to create a continuous route from State Road 64 to S.R. 70. The northern stretch of Lena Road is separated from the southern stretch by about a half-mile of forested and private land. A Lena Road extension would help prevent drivers from using I-75 as a connector between S.R. 64 and S.R. 70.

“That is a no-brainer,” Baugh said. “All I hear is how difficult that is. Well, you know what, figure it out.”

The commissioner’s third priority, also not on the 5-year plan, is the widening of Lorraine Road from S.R. 64 to S.R. 70, which she said is necessary to accommodate the increased development of homes and businesses along the route. As is, it is a four-lane road from Fruitville Road to S.R. 70 before becoming a two-lane road.

“It needs to be four lanes all the way,” Baugh said. “I think it's terrible that all of these new communities are coming in and they're putting in their turn lanes, and we're going to come back to four-lane it and take them out. It makes absolutely no sense. The planning of that is horrendous.”

Commissioner George Kruse said the county needs to focus on improving infrastructure in areas of rapid growth, such as East County and northern Manatee County. The first example he pointed to was Lorraine Road. He also said the county needs to complete widening projects at Moccasin Wallow Road and Erie Road.

Among the other projects Baugh wants to accelerate is the widening of Upper Manatee River Road to four lanes north of S.R. 64. She said the road is too congested in the mornings and evenings with people trying to travel to and from work. Manatee County Public Works Director Chad Butzow estimated in March widening the road to four lanes would reduce backup on southbound Upper Manatee River Road to S.R. 64 by 50%. The project is not on the 5-year plan.

Widening Upper Manatee River Road is one of Commissioner James Satcher's top priorities, along with widening Erie Road. He also said another east-west road, such as 69th Street, Mendoza Road or Buckeye Road should be widened to increase efficiency in tandem with Moccasin Wallow Road. Additionally, Satcher said his district needs more sidewalks, especially along routes where children walk to school.

"We need to make it to where children aren't walking to school on a road like Erie, where it's narrow and it's straight and people are driving fast," Satcher said. "In old downtown Parrish, people are cutting through to get to the high school. So those are roads that were not designed for a lot of through traffic. Children there, they may only be a half-mile from school. But it's not a safe walk. I want to take care of old Parrish as well and not leave them behind."

Windsong Acres residents Arlan Cummings and Howard Duff say widening Upper Manatee River Road would help with congestion. File photo.

One significant project already underway in Manatee County is the extension of 44th Avenue East. The county is working on the fifth phase of the project, extending 44th Avenue from 45th Street East (which becomes Lockwood Ridge Road) about 3.27 miles to I-75 and includes a 0.28-mile bridge over the Braden River, which is about 33% complete. Bradenton-based Woodruff & Sons is scheduled to complete the phase in fall 2022.

The sixth and final phase will be an extension from I-75 to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, which includes a proposed overpass at the interstate. The final project design for this phase is expected to be complete in April 2022.

The extension of 44th Avenue is vital because it will create an east-west route to relieve traffic from S.R. 64 and S.R. 70, according to Baugh. Combined with the extension of Lena Road and widening of Lorraine Road, the commissioner believes it will create an effective grid system and relieve some traffic congestion on I-75.

Manatee County Project Manager Eric Shroyer and former Deputy Director of the Engineering Services Division Sia Mollanazar stand in front of the Braden River. A bridge will be constructed over the river to extend 44th Avenue. File photo.

“We need to get as much traffic off of 75 as we can,” Baugh said. “You know, 75 is there not to go from State Road 70 to 64, necessarily. It's not really a road that should be used for people trying to get from this location in Manatee to another location.”

Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge said completing the 44th Avenue extension should be one of the county's top priorities to relieve traffic, along with completing the widening of Moccasin Wallow Road from U.S. Route 301 to U.S. Route 41, a project that is also important to Satcher.

The commissioner also wants to prioritize the aforementioned Lena Road extension, widening 59th Street between Manatee Avenue and Cortez Road and filling in the two-lane gap on 75th Street between Manatee Avenue and Cortez Road, among other projects.

Van Ostenbridge said in a Jan. 12 meeting that local road construction costs have risen 7% to 11% each of the past three years, according to Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association. Van Ostenrbidge said rising costs provide increased incentive for the board to act now.

A "no outlet" sign shows that Lena Road heading south on its northern segment does not connect to the southern portion of the roadway. File photo.

Commissioner George Kruse agreed road construction is an urgent matter, saying it’s more of a necessity than a priority.

“We need to get people through Manatee County efficiently and safely, and over these years, for one reason or another, we haven't kept up with demand and kept up with growth,” Kruse said. “We do a disservice to all these people coming here when we don't provide adequate methods for that growth. And we do an even bigger disservice to the people who were here before those people, because they need to be able to get to the beaches. They need to be able to get downtown. They need to be able to get to their employment center.”

Kruse declined to speak about which projects should be prioritized. However, he said there are enough of them that the county should consider obtaining bonds to finance many projects at once. He wondered what the county could do if it had, say, $500 million to complete as many projects as it can.

“What if we just bonded the hell out of this stuff?” Kruse said. “We need to come up with the dollars just to do this now. And then you'll start seeing a meaningful difference. You're not going to see a meaningful difference putting a turn lane in every now and then. And we need to get ahead of it because we're losing opportunity for right of way.”

Van Ostenbridge wasn’t sure about hundreds of millions of dollars, but he does like the idea of bonds. He said the last bond the county obtained had an interest rate of 2%, much lower than the rising cost of construction.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore, however, was skeptical about obtaining large amounts of bonds. As a fiscal conservative, she said the county would likely decrease its reserve fund to pay for some of the projects. She said this would in turn hurt the county’s bond rating and possibly require the county to put down a deposit when obtaining bonds, which it currently doesn’t need to do.

Kruse disagreed, saying the county shouldn’t sit on its AAA bond rating and low debt. Rather, he said the county needs to take advantage of its strong credit rating and reserves.

Baugh said the Board of County Commissioners soon needs to discuss its Capital Improvement Plan projects and decide which will most help to relieve traffic in growing areas. She said those discussions are likely to take place after Manatee County hires a new administrator, which could be as early as March.

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.

See All Articles by Brendan

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