MANATEE -- The Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation said Thursday he will try to corral about $60 million for accelerated construction of a new interchange at Interstate 75 and University Parkway.
There is a condition: Local officials and developers must pledge to fortify the congested road network around it.
"The goal would be to get it into construction, or at least have a game plan in place for construction, and the goal would be to get it done before the rowing event," FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad said during a phone interview Thursday, referring to the World Rowing Championship slated for Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park in 2017.
"We're looking for everybody to put skin in the game," Prasad said after meeting in Tallahassee with a delegation of officials and developers from Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Prasad is seeking "a holistic solution for infrastructure in this area" that would include a new interchange as well as fortification of the network of roads around it.
"What the county and the developers told me and showed me were other improvements being made to local roads in the process, in the hopper, to get those improvements made" to solve gridlock there, Prasad said.
The FDOT secretary asked Manatee and Sarasota county officials to pass formal resolutions committing to road improvements designed to take the pressure off University Parkway and the I-75 interchange.
He also asked them to formally support funding for the new "diverging diamond" style interchange, "and get into it sooner, rather than later."
"I'm cautiously optimistic we can fund the interchange soon," he said. "The money is the big issue."
Before figuring out how to pay for a new interchange, Prasad said, "I want a pretty firm commitment from the counties."
Prasad indicated FDOT staff members will be available to coordinate projects among the many diverse parties involved, and to help the two counties write such resolutions during the next month or so.
"The takeaway was, we're going to move on this as soon as we can," said state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Bradenton, who organized the meeting. "The secretary has assured me he gets the funding he needs."
A group of Manatee County officials driving back from Tallahassee was celebrating the outcome of the meeting.
"We're really excited. I couldn't get the smile off my face," said Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. "It was really wonderful."
Those representing the two counties, a state agency and private developers worked together "extremely well," said Baugh.
Prasad was also helpful, she said: "You couldn't ask for more."
"Let's hope that they foot the bill for this, fast," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore during a meeting in Bradenton as the commission awaited word from Tallahassee.
The delegation included Ed Hunzeker and Thomas Harmer, county administrators from Manatee and Sarasota counties, respectively; Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and Sarasota Commission Chairman Charles Hines; Rex Jensen and Todd Pokrywa from Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Lakewood Ranch's developer; and transportation experts from both counties.
"You have so many different issues, it seemed necessary to pull together a meeting," said Manatee Commissioner Betsy Benac during a land-use meeting in Bradenton, referring to traffic woes that surround University Parkway, a divider between Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has offered to extend Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Lorraine Road south to Fruitville Road, and perhaps build an east-west overpass across the interstate south of University Parkway, said Prasad.
Traffic gridlock is expected to worsen in the area as the new Mall at University Town Center opens in October, and crowds appear for events at a new, world-class rowing center at Benderson Park.
Benac said she was "very encouraged" to hear of Thursday's events.
"Time to move forward, and come up with some solutions," she said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031, or follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.