MANATEE — The future of Manatee County’s transportation system could hinge on what 15 elected and appointed officials decide Monday.
Those officials, acting as the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board, will review two versions of a draft plan outlining what transportation projects in the two counties should be done during the next 25 years.
One alternative would continue with current plans and policies, which emphasize widening existing roads and building new ones to handle more vehicle traffic as the region’s population grows. The other option would shift more focus and money — including revenue from a possible sales-tax increase — toward developing a greatly expanded transit system and improving the U.S. 41 corridor for more than automobiles.
At stake: How more than $2 billion in anticipated federal, state and local money would be spent under the MPO’s long-range transportation plan, which an Orlando consultant is updating.
“It’s an opportunity for the MPO to review how it does business and its priorities,” said Whit Blanton, vice president of Renaissance Planning Group.
He called the first option “a kind of business-as-usual approach.” Under it, the lion’s share of future revenues would be spent on road or road-related projects. Among them:
n Four-laning U.S. 301 between County Road 675 and Moccasin Wallow Road.
n Building a four-lane 44th Avenue East from 45th Street East to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
n Four-laning 27th Street East between U.S. 301 and Manatee Avenue East.
n Conducting a feasibility study for a new Manatee River bridge between the Interstate 75 and U.S. 41/U.S. 301 bridges.
That approach leaves just enough money to do about a third of the estimated $3.2 billion in transportation projects needed to accommodate Manatee’s expected growth through 2035, officials said.
“It contains all the projects on the MPO’s priority list, and a lot of them are road-capacity projects that are very costly and time-consuming,” said Mike Maholtz, an MPO planner who is managing the long-range plan update. “It takes a long time to collect the money needed to do them, so other needs usually go unmet. ... Projects either don’t get done or take a long time to get done. It’s frustrating to a lot of people. It’s frustrating to our governing board.”
Hence, the second proposed scenario.
It would allocate more money toward mass transit, including the development of bus-rapid transit — a high-frequency, limited-stop bus service between Bradenton and Sarasota. It also would elevate the U.S. 41 corridor to a major priority, with more emphasis on walking, biking and transit, and less on travel by car along one of the region’s oldest corridors as it is redeveloped.
“It doesn’t mean that you don’t add capacity, you’re just trying to reach a better balance,” Blanton said.
Few specific projects have been proposed for the corridor, but possibilities include roundabouts, new and wider sidewalks, bus-only lanes and bicycle paths, he said.
The option would be a major philosophical shift for the MPO, Maholtz said.
“Now is the time to step forward and decide how much emphasis to put on mass transit in the future,” he said. “This plan really is the first plan with a lot of transit in it.”
But more money for transit would mean less for roads. As a result, two Manatee road projects in the first option — four-laning 69th Street between Erie Road and U.S. 41, and four-laning Honore Avenue from Conestoga Place to Sandstone Avenue — would be dropped.
Also, four-laning 63rd Avenue East between U.S. 301 and 39th Street East would be delayed and funded with impact fees instead of state and federal money under the second option.
The second option also hinges on Manatee voters approving a half-cent or one-cent sales tax increase for transportation, but not for another 15 years.
“What we’re suggesting is the MPO consider it as a potential revenue source, but not starting it until the year 2025,” Blanton said.
Both options contain several major projects already on the state’s long-range plan, including widening Interstate 75 to 10 lanes, modifying several I-75 interchanges and building a connector road between I-75 and Port Manatee. Both also include a flyover for port-related truck traffic to cross over or under U.S. 41.
They also include several major projects that long have been MPO priorities but have not yet been built, including a U.S. 41 bypass in Venice and a connector road between Englewood and I-75 in southern Sarasota County.
“We’ve put a lot of money and effort into them and we can’t just walk away from them,” Maholtz said.
Planners will incorporate the MPO’s comments into a final proposed plan that will be the subject of a public hearing before the board adopts it Dec. 13. Although no public workshops or meetings are planned until then, residents can view documents on the MPO’s website (www.mympo.org) or call the MPO at (941) 359-5772 to get more information or make comments, Maholtz said.
Duane Marsteller, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.