Construction on $83 million Interstate 75/University Parkway intersection near new mall could start in July

UNIVERSITY PARK -- With Gov. Rick Scott's approval and the blessing of state House and Senate leaders, $83 million for an Interstate 75 interchange at University Parkway will be available within the next two weeks.

The money will pay for a planned traffic system designed to handle increased volume associated with the new Mall at University Town Center, and to alleviate a growing number of vehicles at the I-75-University intersection. The governor sent the funding measure to legislative leadership for consultation Thursday. It received almost immediate approval, which means the money will be available to the Florida Department of Transportation within 14 days.

At a meeting at the Holiday Inn/SRQ, FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad announced the funding for the interchange project, which was proposed last year. State Sen. Bill Galvano and state Rep. Greg Steube told the gathering of local elected officials and business leaders that House and Senate leaders support the funding. Galvano's office confirmed the timetable for the availability of the project funding.

The interchange, which

will widen I-75 to eight lanes at University Parkway and build a diverging diamond intersection at the ramps to the interstate, will break ground next July, Prasad said. The work will also widen a mile of University between Market Street in Lakewood Ranch and North Cattlemen Road.

Prasad's agency received designs from its engineering firm this week that are 90 percent complete. An early budget for the project was $43 million, but the price has gone up several times since 2013 as features were added.

Included in the budget is incentive money to speed design and construction. Prasad said design work for the interchange is already ahead of schedule.

"We cannot use the normal process of designing a project," he said.

Once construction starts, the project's general contractor could earn up to $5 million in bonuses for finishing ahead of schedule. It could also be penalized $5 million if the completion deadline is missed.

Road work is expected to finish in August or early September 2017, in time for the World Rowing Championships to be held next to the mall at Nathan Benderson Park.

Galvano said the impact of the project goes beyond the mall and its environs.

"It's not just a great thing for the Sarasota-Manatee area. It's a great thing for the state," he said.

In the interim, the state and the two counties will put additional money into controlling traffic around the mall. Billy Hattaway, FDOT District 1 secretary, said his agency will soon start installing "adaptive" traffic signals to regulate the flow of traffic between the interstate, University Parkway and Lakewood Ranch to the east.

The computers operating an adaptive traffic control system can adjust light timing every few minutes using data collected through traffic sensors. The Federal Highway Administration states on its website that the technology can improve travel time by 10 to 90 percent, depending on how outdated light timing is in a particular area.

FDOT will pay for the adaptive signal equipment. Manatee and Sarasota counties will install and operate the equipment, Hattaway said.

Hattaway also said having law enforcement direct traffic, particularly where it enters and exits mall parking, will help keep traffic flowing during the mall's early days and through the upcoming interchange construction schedule.

"Parking management is key," Hattaway said. "If you leave it entirely to the public, it will be more confusing."

The sheriff's offices in Manatee and Sarasota counties will work together on traffic control through the mall's opening weekend. Todd Mathes, director of development for mall partner Benderson Development Co., said the mall will spend about $200,000 to pay for officers doing traffic work and for help from traffic engineers who will monitor timing on traffic lights around the mall.

Mathes said law enforcement will be on scene primarily to handle any traffic accidents that might occur during the first four days of traffic operations.

Thursday's event was sponsored by the Manatee and Sarasota chambers of commerce.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.