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East County Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2022 4 months ago

Waterside-UTC connector could break ground in 2023 if funding in place

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The I-75 overpass bridging Lakewood Ranch and Cattleman Road could open as soon as late 2025.
by: Ian Swaby Staff Writer

Ground still hasn't been broken on the Interstate 75 overpass that was announced in 2016 to connect the UTC area and Waterside Place of Lakewood Ranch, but behind the scenes, a rigorous planning process continues to move forward.

Ken Stokes, an Infrastructure Coordination Program Manager for Sarasota County, said the project — the Multimodal North Sarasota Connector — has taken years to get off the ground for good reason.

"As the county, we represent the citizens," Stokes said. "We make sure it's all done properly."

The connector currently is in Project Development and Environment study, a requirement instituted by the National Environmental Policy Act for a project to receive federal funding, a benefit which the county is currently pursuing.

Stokes said the connector is expected to offer multiple benefits to the community, one being greater ease of movement between locations such as Nathan Benderson Park, The Mall at University Town Center, and Waterside Place.

He said traffic management is also an important goal, noting that it is expected to relieve traffic in the diamond interchange at University Parkway and I-75 as well as the one planned for Fruitville Road and I-75.

The connector will serve pedestrians and cyclists as well.

“It's also for people, and recreation,” Stokes said. “There's a pretty great demand for that. Waterside is a big new community in Lakewood Ranch and the residents have a lot of internal roads over there. To allow them to get (to the UTC area), without having to go north and south through all of this interchange, is a big part of it.”

A public and private partnership is involved with the project is being funded at the PD&E and design stages by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. The consultant Kisinger Campo & Associates, Corp., is performing the study on behalf of Sarasota County Public Works. The Florida Department of Transportation, the organization which works on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration, is involved in reviewing the work.

Stokes said it isn’t unusual for PD&E needs to take up to two years. However, he did highlight two factors that have impacted progress. He said COVID-19 played a slight role, creating the need for a virtual public workshop from Nov. 12-Dec. 3, 2020 to collect feedback online from the community.

The department has increasingly taken into account ways in which I-75 could expand in the future through the additions of further lanes.

“You don't want to have to take it down and damage it later, which is a waste of taxpayer money,” Stokes said.

Despite the project being a lower-level PD&E study, known as a "categorical exclusion," which is deemed not to deal with serious environmental impacts, Stokes said it is still extremely comprehensive.

“A PD&E is pretty exhaustive,” he said. “You hit pretty much every impact and the need to mitigate those impacts.”

The PD&E stage also involves the beginning of coordination with organizations such as permitting agencies and water management districts.

The connector is currently short of the 30% complete design plans it will need to exit the planning stage — however, once it reaches that figure, it can move on to design and permitting.

During the design stage, a project’s facets are broken down in much greater detail, including an estimate that includes every component needed to complete it, such as the number of guard rails.

Following completion of the design is construction, which Stokes anticipates will begin in 2023, if it receives location design acceptance at the PD&E public hearing set for an undetermined date this fall, and if funding is in place. The hearings will be the public’s opportunity to provide further input and have it considered by the commission, although the decision will ultimately lie with the Sarasota County commissioners.

The hearing will decide formally on an element required by PD&E studies — the inclusion of multiple routes. Stokes said that a particular route — Alternative 2 — is already preferred by numerous parties including the Board of County Commissioners, the Public Works Department, SMR, the FDOT, and those who commented in the public workshop, due to its minimal environmental and residential impacts.

The route crosses between Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Cattleman Road, just north of the Sarasota County water tower.

“It's not unusual that people have different perspectives,” Stokes said. “But we heard limited opposition from residents, from businesses, from various entities.”

Regarding the other options, he said, “Those were the alternatives we could think of. They have merits, they’re doable.”

Alternative 1, the southernmost route, crosses over I-75 from the south side of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, looping through a residential area near The Meadows before reaching Cattleman Road. “It has direct impacts to at least two homes,” said Stokes. “There are other residents nearby that would be affected because of its proximity. That's probably the biggest negative for Alternative 1.”

Alternative 3 is the only route to connect to Professional Parkway instead of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and it extends directly to the island at Nathan Benderson Park.

“There's no residential impacts, but it does span the wetland,” Stokes said. “It also gets to an area on the north area of the park that’s going to be very congested."

Stokes said some feedback thought this alternative could cause traffic jams at the north end of Nathan Benderson Park.

He said that due to its length, Alternative 2 is at the midpoint in terms of cost. The estimated cost for each route is in the $25 to $30 million range. The estimate originally was placed at $20 million, but consideration of future conditions on I-75 and inflation, have changed the number.

The overpass will give Lakewood Ranch residents direct access to Nathan Benderson Park. Stephen Rodriguez, the Nathan Benderson Park Conservancy’s interim president and CEO, said he was excited by the project.

“Certainly, one of our park goals and one of our missions in operating this park is to have people utilizing it in a number of different ways,” Rodriguez said. "We see this project offering some wonderful opportunities for the park itself, in connecting Lakewood Ranch residents directly into the park area. Anytime we can provide connection to the park, improving accessibility for our residents, that's a positive thing. We are community park, so having a project that will allow a group of individuals or residents to walk or bike directly into the park is a win for this community.”

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