UNIVERSITY PARK -- The new "diverging diamond" interchange planned for University Parkway and Interstate 75, which would be the first of its kind in Florida, is still years away.
It won't be ready in time for the opening of the adjacent University Town Center luxury mall in October 2014, and probably not even in time for the start of the 2017 World Rowing Championships coming to the still-under-construction rowing facility at Nathan Benderson Park, both of which are expected to bring thousands of additional cars to the area.
But Manatee and Sarasota officials are already expressing their concerns over the interchange, an estimated $49 million Florida Department of Transportation project that still doesn't have funding for construction and that would also require additional roadway improvements paid for by the local governments.
Sarasota County commis
sioners are going so far as to draft a memo to FDOT expressing their opposition to the interchange plans and offering up some alternatives that take into account the area's transportation grid as a whole, said Jonathan Paul, interim director of transportation for Sarasota County.
Though FDOT will eventually use state or federal funds to pay for the new interchange, the project "would fail" if improvements aren't made at the intersection of University Parkway and Cattlemen Road to help alleviate traffic, said Debbie Tower, spokeswoman for FDOT's District 1. Those improvements would be the responsibility of Sarasota and Manatee counties and have been projected to cost about $25 million, Paul said.
"If we're going to have to pony up some money, I'd much rather explore an opportunity for additional connectivity to our transportation network via a new overpass than opposed to converting University Parkway to a freeway," Paul told Sarasota commissioners last week.
Local officials say they favor a more holistic approach that would improve the traffic flow on adjacent roadways. But exactly which roadways, and how those improvements would be paid for, isn't clear.
In a study released in May, FDOT acknowledged that when finished, the interchange will have a much higher capacity than adjoining roadways, with University Parkway being widened from six lanes to 10. The speed limit would be reduced from 45 mph to 35 mph, creating a potential bottleneck if the nearby intersections can't handle the backup.
"Westbound traffic stopped at the N. Cattlemen/Cooper Creek intersection may back up into the I-75 interchange; a similar situation might occur with eastbound traffic backed up at the Market Street intersection," the study states. "The counties may not have sufficient resources to achieve a suitable level of service on University Parkway."
Sarasota is already exploring an overhauled network of roads to the south, at the I-75 and Fruitville Road interchange. The county is also considering asking Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc. developer of the massive Villages of Lakewood Ranch South project south of University and east of I-75, to help pay for an east-west connector overpass from that development over the interstate and Cattlemen Road.
Just about everyone involved acknowledges something has to be done to alleviate the traffic in the area, both now and for what's expected in the next few years.
"The interchange at University is currently backing up on 75, and that's without the development that's coming," said Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, chair of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization. "It does require some improvements to make it work. It would be really nice if (FDOT) would get into this conversation with us on this flyover to see if they might change their mind."
FDOT officials say they plan to continue to work with the MPO on the project, which is still in the early design stages and does not have funding for construction in its five-year work plan.
Another concern is timing. Most officials said they don't want construction going on concurrent with the 2017 rowing championships, which are projected to draw at least 42,000 athletes, coaches and fans to the area. This year's championships in South Korea drew 150,000 spectators, officials said. Work on the interchange would span a 3.5-mile stretch of I-75 from north of Fruitville Road to north of University and would potentially snarl traffic.
"Maybe there are some temporary measures that could be taken to mitigate traffic, but that's for FDOT to figure out," said Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle, vice chair of the Sarasota-Manatee MPO.
"The interchange itself, yes, we'd love it to be done sooner than whatever it might be, in the 2020 to 2030 area, but if that's not the reality then we need to deal with the actual traffic issues that are on University Parkway," said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee MPO. "I think we can do some effective things there that will help forestall some of the area's traffic issues: Public transportation, some intersection improvements and other ideas that we may be able to come up with."
Some are also worried about Manatee-Sarasota becoming home to the first diverging diamond interchange in Florida. "We are the experiment," said Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, also an MPO board member. "We're the guinea pig here. If we're not going to do this, we better stop it right away."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.