University Parkway interchange improvements unlikely before rowing championships

cschelle@bradenton.comAugust 30, 2013 

MANATEE -- It looks more and more likely Manatee residents will have to wait until after a possible World Rowing Championship to see improvements to the interchange linking University Parkway and Interstate 75.

The heavily congested interchange is expected to see more cars thanks to the regional draw of Mall at University Town Center coming online in October 2014 and a possible World Rowing Championship in 2017 -- if the region wins the bid Monday.

More than 57,000 cars already pass through University Parkway onto I-75 each day, and more than 28,000 cars exit I-75 each day onto University Parkway, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Ideally, local elected officials want the project expedited, said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"The challenge is to once again, get the funding together, and to design some type of improvements prior to the rowing thing," Howe said. "We've had some conversations with FDOT. They're looking at that issue. The thing you do not want to have happen, though, is you do not want to be in the midst of construction when a world-class event is going on."

The I-75 project is in the preliminary engineering phase, which is expected to be finished in April 2016, and right-of-way acquisitions and construction remain unfunded. Construction costs were estimated at $49 million by FDOT.

It's unlikely there will never be another international rowing event held there, Howe said. The venue could be used for the Olympics if Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville or Tampa are ever awarded the Summer Games, rowing officials have said.

"Something is going to be done," Howe said.

It's not just businesses, workers and residents along the interchange affected by gridlock.

The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is concerned, too.

Frederick "Rick" Piccolo, airport president and chief executive officer, wants improvements made because the airport markets its convenient access.

"I am a little worried as time goes on and traffic builds up, it will impede the convenience to the airport," Piccolo said.

Public transportation should help ease congestion, Howe said, including planned bus service to Lakewood Ranch and trolley shuttles for rowing events.

"If you have some more transit systems operating there, especially with the mall coming on, there's going to be a lot of intense traffic there that needs a relief mechanism where people don't have to get into their cars," Howe said.

Bus rapid transit doesn't appear to be likely now either, after Sarasota County commissioners declined Wednesday to go after federal transit money because of a required $10 million local match. Increased express bus service for long-haul routes could be an alternative, Howe said.

"When I say express bus, I think people expect that if you have certain peak times during the day when people are wanting to ride that, and have a bus there every 15 minutes, people are going to use it," Howe said.

"If they have to wait a half-hour, 45 minutes or an hour, it's not going to be successful, because Florida can be punishing because of the heat and rain showers and everything we have."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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