LAKEWOOD RANCH -- With people continuing to move to Florida, Gov. Rick Scott says the state must continue to invest in the state's infrastructure.
On Wednesday, Scott was in Lakewood Ranch to celebrate the groundbreaking of one of those investments -- the first diverging diamond interchange in Florida at Interstate 75 and University Parkway. The ceremony, originally postponed by rain, comes a month after construction on the project started Aug. 3.
"This is a very significant project for the Sarasota/Manatee area and I look forward to seeing the finish," Scott said after the ceremony, which was held in a field off University Parkway with the interstate as the backdrop. "With the diverging diamond interchange project, it will be exciting to see how it works as people come off the highway, and it will be safer."
Construction costs are estimated at $74.5 million, and the project is expected to be completed in about two years -- in time for the Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 2017, World Rowing Championship at Nathan Benderson Park.
During the ceremony, elected officials -- including Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, Manatee County Commission Chair Betsy Benac and Sarasota County Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Mason -- spoke about the project,.
"It is a dream for me," said Baugh, who represents Lakewood Ranch. "This is a great day. It is going to be tremendous for us in the area."
The Florida Department of Transportation, Benac said, "is not your father's DOT."
"This is a very different organization that is very responsive to our needs,"
Benac said. "We needed to move this project up to get it done because, thank goodness, our economy has come back. People want to live here. People want to move here."
With the growth of Lakewood Ranch, Nathan Benderson Park and the Mall at University Town Center, the only enclosed mall built in the country in 2014, Steube said the DDI was needed and "wouldn't have happened if everybody wouldn't have come together."
"The growth that we have seen in this corridor and this area has really been tremendous," Steube said. "We really needed this type of infrastructure change. ... Thank you all very much for coming together and really improving this corridor, because all of the constituents that live here are very much going to appreciate having the very first diverging diamond in the state of Florida."
After the remarks, elected officials grabbed shovels and dug dirt to commemorate the groundbreaking. Scott led the photo opportunity at least six times with different groups of people, including the elected officials, FDOT officials and project contractors.
"It looks better to look up when you throw it," Scott instructed the officials during photos.
Planned improvements as part of the diverging diamond interchange project include:
Adding auxiliary lanes on northbound and southbound I-75.
Constructing new bridges on I-75 over University Parkway.
Widening University Parkway and I-75 bridges over Erie Creek and Foley Creek.
Realigning on-ramps and off-ramps at I-75/University Parkway.
Adding ponds and drainage improvements.
New lighting and signals.
Constructing a noise wall on the west side of I-75.
Adding sidewalks, bike lanes and walkways.
"It is a great day here in Manatee, and I know we are excited about the interchange," FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold said. "It's the first of its kind in the state of Florida. It will make a real difference not only keeping the traffic going, but by improving safety by reducing the conflict points. It's an exciting project and it's an exciting day."
Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.