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Transportation plan could depend on finding new funding sources

MPO approves its strategic mobility plan.

If the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization's outlook is correct, projected transportation funding will fall far short of the amount needed to build a strong infrastructure.
If the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization's outlook is correct, projected transportation funding will fall far short of the amount needed to build a strong infrastructure.
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With the wave of their 17 hands on Monday at the Holiday Inn in Sarasota, the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization members approved their Strategic Mobility Plan for the 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan.

Or as Manatee County Commissioner, and MPO board member, Vanessa Baugh termed it, "The 2040 plan, as of today."

While the unanimous passing of the plan was greeting with applause, it wasn't certain if the plan will become a blueprint to follow or a document that instills false hope for those who live in the East County area.

A condensed description of the Strategic Mobility Plan was circulated at the MPO's meeting, and it included a sobering statistic.

In terms of multimodal needs, it is estimated that Sarasota and Manatee counties need to generate $4.37 billion in revenue to make the plan a reality. In terms of expected federal, state and local revenues to accomplish those goals, the figure is $1.175 billion.

The MPO noted that even through "upgrading and expanding Manatee County Area Transit and Sarasota County Area Transit is not financially feasible at the time," growth can be accomplished in a manner that will support those systems if money eventually becomes available.

Those who live in the Lakewood Ranch area should have been concerned by some of the projections. Two maps of the two counties were presented with one representing traffic congestion in the future if planned upgrades are realized. A few red blobs signified problem areas.

The other map signified problem areas if projects aren't completed. Much of the Lakewood Ranch area was covered by a big, red blob.

Just under 1 million residents are expected to occupy Manatee and Sarasota counties by 2040 and the Lakewood Ranch area is expected to lead the population boom.

The plan calls for improving east to west arteries across the region and building a multimodal emphasis corridor program along U.S. 41 from 17th Street in Palmetto to the Charlotte County line. Transportation Alternatives Program funds will be used to enhance regional trails, bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Upper Manatee River Road will be widened from two to four lanes from Fort Hamer Road to State Road 64.

Other projects include Honore Avenue being widened from two to four lanes with multimodal improvements from University Parkway to 17th Street.

All the projects can be examined at

"We have to continue to look at things we can do outside the box," said Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac of funding to realize the plan's goals. "What can we do to change the situation that we are in?

"This project is not static."

Baugh, who represents District 5, agrees that the 2040 plan constantly is in flux.

"The Diverging Diamond (Interchange) project at Interstate 75 and University Parkway wasn't scheduled until 2035," Baugh said. "I worked with Rep. Greg Steube to move it up."

Work on the $74.5 million project began Aug. 3 and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2017. Whether other parts of the 2040 plan must be moved to the forefront and prioritized remain to be seen.

Baugh said the most important part of the process comes now.

"Part of our problem has been getting studies done and not following through," Baugh said.

Some parts of the Strategic Mobility Plan aren't likely to have much effect on those who live in the Lakewood Ranch area.

"In Lakewood Ranch, we have a lot of wonderful bike trails," Baugh said. "So (expanding bicycling capabilities) probably doesn't effect people there so much.

"But if you live in other parts of Manatee County, very much so."

While bus transportation might be even more accessible in the two counties in the future, Lakewood Ranch hasn't showed the ridership to justify expanding the system according to Baugh.

"But it's always being looked at," she said.

She noted that all new construction will be done with a "complete streets" philosophy that considers bicycles, pedestrians and sidewalks along with the roads.

"We know we need to have options other than hopping in a car," said David Hutchinson, who is the MPO executive director.

Baugh also said she is interested to see how the counties deal with the construction of some badly-needed bridges, which would take a tremendous amount of funds to accomplish.

Hutchinson said one of the most important byproducts of the MPO's work the last 18 months was to have a "general agreement on strategy."

He said the counties have a serious lack of funds to meet the plan, but he said federal funding just got better.

President Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion bill to fund better highway infrastructure on Dec. 4.

The Strategic Mobility Plan counts on other funding sources to be found.

"This has been a year and a half of work that involved a lot of people," said Mike Maholtz, an MPO staff member. "Almost 5,000 people provided us with comments (on a web site dedicated to the Strategic Mobility Plan) and we've never had that kind of participation before. This was a group effort in every sense of the word."

Hutchinson said the main goal of the MPO was to "improve the safety and security of the transportation system."

The MPO warned that "We cannot afford to build our way out of congestion and must consider alternatives to simply building more roads."




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