Thanks to FDOT, key Manatee-Sarasota road improvement in offing soon

March 26, 2014 

The usual glacial pace of government shifted into high gear in NASCAR-style action on a road project vital to economic development and traffic congestion in the Manatee-Sarasota region.

Three cheers to the Florida Department of Transportation for fast-tracking improvements in the University Parkway-Interstate 75 interchange.

That time-consuming bottleneck would have only worsened with the completion of the giant Mall at University Town Center in October, followed by the 2017 World Rowing Championships at nearby Nathan Benderson Park.

That rowing event promises to put Southwest Florida on the global map of great places to visit, but pictures of traffic gridlock would discourage tourism.

An additional three cheers to the regional delegation that traveled to Tallahassee this month to lobby state transportation officials about the importance of this key project.

And to the developers participating in FDOT's requirement that this project include additional arterial improvements, with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. leading the way.

The surprising and welcome FDOT priority change this month accelerates a project not expected to be undertaken for at least three years. Just this past December, we implored the state to fix this bottleneck interchange -- already a gridlock well in advance of the mall's opening.

At that time, Manatee County commissioners voted unanimously to place interchange improvements atop its list of transportation priorities. With the Sarasota County commission and developers united behind the project, this is a prime example of a public-private partnership working to better the community.

Their combined voices apparently convinced FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad to commit to financing the project, with an estimated cost of $60 million.

The "diverging diamond" shape planned for the interchange will likely baffle motorists at first, but the quicker movement of vehicles should ease any apprehension of criss-crossing traffic. Cars and trucks will briefly drive on the opposite side of the road as lanes cross one another.

The design eliminates hazardous left turns so vehicles get unobstructed access onto the interstate. This recent development in traffic management earned Popular Science's top engineering innovation award in 2009.

With all the details still to be determined, the benefits to residents will stretch beyond one interchange. FDOT requires broader transportation improvements to fortify the road network around the intersection.

One possibility is SMR's idea to build an I-75 overpass linking Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Cattlemen Road, easing the pressure on the University Parkway-I-75 corridor.

Benderson Development Inc.'s investment of more than $20 million in road and infrastructure improvements around its mall and Benderson Park demonstrates the private sector's drive to create economic opportunity and prosperity.

SMR, the Lakewood Ranch developer, stands to benefit handsomely from growth in the University Parkway corridor, too, with big plans for new neighborhoods east of the interstate.

While FDOT's financing package has not been finalized, the agency's commitment to a new interchange looks solid but hinges on local support.

With Manatee and Sarasota county commissioners voting unanimously Tuesday to embrace the plan, the region's well on its way to expedited and important transportation network improvements.

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