Manatee road projects taking some residents by surprise

skennedy@bradenton.comFebruary 24, 2013 

MANATEE -- Lodema and Charles Jenkins retired, and built a home that backs up to what is planned to be a four-lane arterial roadway adjacent to their quiet backyard.

They thought the 44th Avenue East extension, which neighbors have dubbed "the road to nowhere," would never happen.

They saw the swath of vacant land for it, which runs through the Wallingford neighborhood where they built their dream home in 2003, but they didn't think the road would ever materialize.

"Of course, it's concerning," said Lodema Jenkins, 73, last week on her pool deck, which overlooks a large wetland area and pond, where the couple regularly see bald eagles, hawks, wood storks, and once, a bobcat.

"We knew it was on a right-of-way; we didn't think it would happen because it didn't make any sense," she said.

They were wrong: The first phase of the roadway project is slated to begin next summer.

After more than a decade in the making, during which many thought it had died, the complex project is poised to become a reality.

The 44th Avenue extension has been part of the county's comprehensive plan for more than 20 years and will fulfill a critical need, connecting Cortez Road on the west to Lakewood Ranch on the east.

County officials last week acknowledged no environmental study had ever been done addressing what will happen to wetland areas in the road's path, like those behind the Jenkins' home.

"Nobody ever did an environmental impact statement," said Ron Schulhofer, the county's director of public works. But he added, "We'll mitigate," meaning that the county will replace wetlands that are disturbed.

But officials did reiterate the project's importance to the area.

Transportation planners told county commissioners that another major roadway to carry east-west traffic is an essential part of an effective countywide road network.

They have scheduled an informational meeting at 6 p.m. March 20 at the Manatee Area Convention Center in Palmetto to discuss phase two.

The road project's cost is hovering at about $53.8 million, and that's without a bridge that would carry traffic over the Braden River, related widening projects or the expense of another leg on the eastern side of the river that would bisect an environmentally-sensitive area.

Some business people said they looked forward to improved access for large trucks and quicker commutes for employees working at the Manasota Industrial Park.

Some East Manatee residents expressed enthusiasm because it would provide them with a straight shot west to the Gulf of Mexico beaches.

However, irate residents who oppose all or parts of the road project have also set a meeting for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Palm Room at the Peridia Golf & Country Club.

Members of homeowners' associations representing more than 1,000 households are expected to attend, according to Peter Schneider, who said his property is along the road's proposed route, in the 4700 block of Raintree Street Circle East, at Peridia.

They are unhappy because they foresee messy construction along with traffic noise and air pollution and wetlands destruction in their community.

They hope to convince county commissioners, who are paying most of the cost, to halt construction at U.S. Hwy. 301, at least temporarily.

They call it "the road to nowhere" because there is no bridge for the four lanes of traffic to cross the Braden River -- and none planned -- so drivers will still have to cut south a half-mile to State Road 70 in order to continue east.

A portion of the 44th Avenue extension already exists at Lakewood Ranch, linking Gullett Elementary School, Central Park and Lakewood Ranch Commerce Park, which is home to several high tech businesses.

County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, in whose district much of the construction will take place, said the project had already been approved by the time she took office.

But she said she did her best to help residents successfully lobby for methods of minimizing traffic disturbances, such as slowing traffic and installing buffers.

The big project entails three phases, according to Schulhofer.

Phase one includes work from First Street East to 19th Street Court East; phase two includes 19th Street Court East to 30th Street East; and phase three will take place from 30th Street East to 45th Street East.

Construction on the first phase is slated to start as early as summer 2013, from the intersection of U.S. Hwy. 41 and 44th Avenue East to 19th Street Court East, Schulhofer said.

Phase two calls for a new, four-lane roadway with median from 19th Street Court East to 30th Street East.

It will include signalized intersections at 19th Street Court East, U.S. 301 and at 30th Street East, Schulhofer said.

The existing intersection at U.S. Hwy. 301 and 38th Avenue East will be modified to remove the traffic signal and reduce access, he said.

Construction on phase two is estimated to begin in the summer of 2014, he said.

Phase three calls for a new, four-lane roadway between 30th Street East and 45th Street East, with construction estimated to start during the summer of 2014, Schulhofer said.

A related project calls for widening 45th Street East from two to four lanes.

Some of those who live or work immediately adjacent to the proposed road know very little about it.

Three or four years ago, Calvin Perry was puzzled when a survey crew came by and sprayed orange paint markings 30 feet from the bay doors of his business, Bluegrass Industries, 4320 15th St. E.

"I have been told nothing," said Perry, whose work involves truck manufacturing, truck maintenance and services. "Everybody tells me it's going to happen. I have an attorney who follows the projects, and when I call him, he says: 'Nothing yet, nothing yet.'"

Perry has heard lots of rumors.

If the roadway comes too close to the bay doors on his building, it could hurt his business. But the latest rumors he has heard indicated the proposed route will spare him.

"Until they actually show me something, I have nothing to complain about," said Perry.

Bill Blalock, broker and president of Wyman Green and Blalock Real Estate, Inc., also mentioned a dearth of information about the upcoming project.

He sells real estate in and around the Manasota Industrial Park, which is also in the road's path. He hears frequently from business owners in the park who want to know more about the road project.

"It's intended to connect to U.S. Hwy. 301, and will greatly increase the speed folks can get their trucks out of here," said Blalock, whose specializes in real estate sales in the industrial park. "Connectivity is extremely important."

"Look at it from a business owner, a business employee perspective," he said. "There's a great deal of improved accessibility and drive times for commuters, and I think that's a big plus for the business owner."

Several businesses in the industrial park run multiple shifts, he noted. The retailer Bealls operates a large facility there, he said.

"Accessibility is very important to moving product and attracting businesses and building an employee base," Blalock said.

So far, he's not getting buyers who are making business decisions based upon the road's future presence, but he is hearing from those running existing businesses who have questions.

"Additional information would be wonderful to get," he said.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.

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