Time to improve University Parkway, I-75 interchange

December 8, 2013 

PAUL VIDELA/pvidela@bradenton.com Northbound cars exit eastword on University Parkway from Interstate 75.

PAUL VIDELA — Paul Videla

The heavily congested University Parkway-Interstate 75 interchange should be a high priority on the Florida Department of Transportation's list of vital improvements. It isn't.

With the pending completion of the Mall at University of Town Center next October -- a major regional attraction -- the intersection bottleneck will continue to vex motorists even more than today. The long waits at red lights already thwart the government goal of a smooth transportation system that promotes commerce and traffic.

The Manatee County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to place improvements to this critical gateway atop its list of future transportation spending, but FDOT has this project on the far back burner.

The state agency only has a modest plan to add interchange turn lanes at a cost of less than $1 million. But a major upgrade -- at a projected cost of $49 million -- is unlikely before 2017, if then. Funding for the design and construction has yet to be approved.

Some 57,000 vehicles enter the interstate from the parkway daily and another 28,000 exit I-75 onto University. When the megamall opens, that number will rise exponentially. What is FDOT waiting for?

With the major global sporting events that Nathan Benderson Park already features on its calendar, traffic will increase yet again.

The 2017 World Rowing Championships alone will crowd intersections with visitors as will newly announced 2014 and 2016 World Cup Finals in pentathlon, the latter two events too soon to expect major improvements but still a reason to compel state investment now rather than later.

This is not just a Manatee County issue. University Parkway stretches along the boundary with Sarasota County, which has a huge stake in this, too, since Nathan Benderson Park sits in its jurisdiction.

The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, the bicounty region's premier transportation body, agrees this should move forward. So does the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Today FDOT is only planning preliminary engineering and a half mile interchange lane additions, a weak nod to the gridlock that already exists. The MPO plans to discuss this pressing traffic issue on Dec. 16 in conjunction with approving FDOT's five-year-draft plan for the region. The University Parkway-Interstate 75 interchange merits high priority -- based on a future that is clearly evident.

Manatee County commissioners are already on record that interchange improvements should be a top priority, voting 7-0 last week to urge the placement of the project on FDOT's work plans. However, the agency's five-year plan contains no money for either design or construction, an oversight that the state should correct.

The Mall at University of Town Center will generate a large volume of traffic -- and not just from Manatee and Sarasota counties but from elsewhere in Florida since high-profile stores like Nordstrom will be there.

The legislative delegation in both counties should push for this, too. Manatee's lawmakers broached the idea at a Wednesday meeting with county commissioners and other Manatee officials with a sound motion to contact FDOT and speed up a study instead of waiting on a decision from the regional transportation planning agency.

"If we can take steps to more quickly better that interchange, then that's what we need to do," Sen. Bill Galvano stated at the meeting.

We couldn't agree more. Faster-track improvements will serve state interests as well as regional ones.

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