Manatee administrator: No financial commitment for University Parkway area

skennedy@bradenton.comJune 13, 2014 

MANATEE -- Manatee County has made no financial commitment to improve feeder roads around a new University Parkway/Interstate 75 interchange the Florida Department of Transportation has pledged to build, the Manatee County Commission was told Thursday.

At a review of capital projects for the coming fiscal year, County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said he has not been informed "of any commitment that we need to make to that."

"And as we saw when we were in Tallahassee for the big meeting several months back, we didn't come up as a participating partner in solving the issues. It was all Sarasota-related issues and their commitments to SMR (Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc.) and FDOT's commitment to make it happen," said Hunzeker.

"And we sat there nice and quiet as everybody talked about what they needed to do, and we cheered them on," he told commissioners.

Sarasota County officials have already invested in feeder roads in the area, and are jointly planning future projects alongside local developers to head off congestion.

The Oct. 16 opening of a new Mall at University Town Center and crowds attracted to new Nathan Benderson Park rowing venue present a traffic challenge.

In March, FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad called local officials and developers to Tallahassee to announce he would try to corral about $60 million for accelerated construction of a new interchange, but he stated a clear condition: Local officials and developers must pledge to fortify the congested road network around the east-west artery separating Manatee and Sarasota counties.

"I don't know whether they have financial obligations or not, but they will inherit some of the congestion," said Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, when told of Thursday's discussion at a Manatee County Commission budget workshop.

"There is time for them to work on the issue," she said. "Sarasota County does not control what Manatee County ultimately decides to do -- we're responsible for our side of the equation, and we have given it thought and are working on it in a variety of ways."

FDOT public information officer Robin Stublen said: "We're upholding our end of the bargain, and the diverging diamond interchange will be a reality. ...If they don't do something with their local network, it will fail."

Hunzeker assured commissioners Manatee County is not on the hook.

"We made no commitments at that meeting, and no one asked us to make a commitment," Hunzeker said, referring to the meeting with FDOT in March. "All of the activity that will take place is on the south side of University, the extension of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and Lorraine Road to the south, and what I refer to as a yet-to-be-named road that will cross over I-75 and come down south of the rowing facility."

Manatee Commission Chairman Larry Bustle said he feared he might be "surprised" with some request for road improvements such as needing to buy rights-of-way.

Hunzeker said an initial plan floated about eight months ago to change an intersection at Market Street in Lakewood Ranch was unpopular, and has been dropped.

"They have given up on that requirement because the extension of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to the south and Lorraine Road...is anticipated to reduce the amount of traffic that would be impacted at that intersection, so they're going to leave that alone," said Hunzeker.

County officials remain in touch with private developers at Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, who have agreed to finance projects to improve feeder roads around the interchange, he said.

Sarasota Commissioner Christine Robinson noted the interchange design is not yet finished, and said its completion is the focus now.

"You can't talk about these things in isolation," she said. "You've got to look at the area as a whole. Not planning as a whole unit caused it to be the way it is. We've got a (Sarasota-Manatee) Metropolitan Planning Organization to help with these discussions."

"We know, we anticipate there should be something," said Hunzeker. "...I don't think they're finished with the overall design in order to even to go to construction, and everybody talks about the 'diverging diamond,' but we know there is an impact to both the east and west to those intersections. We've talked about it.

"We'll keep you informed when we hear."

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.

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