River Road update part of focus for joint County Commission/North Port Commission meeting
Although the timeline again hit a bump, Sarasota County’s chief engineer said this week that, on Oct. 8, he expects to appear before the County Commission to seek approval of the final agreement that will swap roads on Siesta Key to the county in turn for the state’s assuming authority over North River Road.
That was part of an update that Spencer Anderson — who also is director of the county’s Public Works Department — presented to the County Commission and the North Port City Commission during the boards’ joint meeting this week in Venice.
In August, Anderson told The Sarasota News Leader that he anticipated appearing before the County Commission in late September to present the final draft of the road swap agreement. Staff still is working with representatives of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) on the wording, he told the commissioners on Oct. 2.
If all goes as Anderson expects from here on out, in September 2020, the county will assume control of Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive west of U.S. 41, plus Higel Avenue and the northern part of Midnight Pass Road (State Road 758).
The new county segment will include Bay Road and a portion of Osprey Avenue in the city of Sarasota.
FDOT would take over control of North River Road in April 2020.
Additionally, in the summer of 2021, the county and FDOT would assume maintenance responsibilities for their respective road segments.
Formally, Anderson explained, the jurisdictional responsibilities will change for River Road and the Siesta roads after the state gets all of the right of way maps from the county for North River Road. “We have offered all appraised estimates to the property owners [holding right of way between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75],” Anderson said, “and are working through final negotiations.”
Eminent domain may be necessary in some cases, he added, “to keep on schedule.”
Anderson did note on Oct. 2 that FDOT still will complete the resurfacing of Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way in the 2022 fiscal year. That project will encompass 1.6 miles, according to a slide Anderson showed the two commissions.
FDOT also will handle a drainage improvement project in the vicinity of Little Pond Road near the Higel Avenue/Siesta Drive intersection, Anderson said. That will be incorporated into the paving initiative.
One major facet of the road swap agreement, as the News Leader has reported in the past, will be the plans to create safer travel conditions for drivers in the almost 90-degree curve where Siesta Drive intersects with Higel Avenue on north Siesta Key. FDOT will provide the county $359,138 for that initiative, Anderson noted, but the county will be responsible for the work.
That project will get underway “sometime after the road transfer takes place,” Anderson pointed out.
Further, Anderson explained, FDOT will undertake any maintenance or minor repairs on the two fixed bridges on Siesta Key that will switch to county jurisdiction.
Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “Replacing a bridge is very expensive.” She indicated that she hoped FDOT would ensure that those bridges are in good repair prior to the road swap.
Anderson also reminded the county commissioners that FDOT will remain responsible for the two drawbridges — one each on Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road.
One issue that arose Oct. 2 in regard to the state’s assuming control of North River Road was a rumor that the state plans to charge a toll from U.S. 41 to I-75 after the improvements have been completed, County Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out.
After learning of that rumor, Maio said, he called L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s secretary for District One, which includes Sarasota County.
Nandam told him, Maio continued, “‘No, absolutely not.’ … That takes a whole justification process.”
County Commissioner Christian Ziegler noted how upsetting it would be to county residents if North River Road became a toll road.
North Port Commissioner Vanessa Carusone thanked Maio for broaching the issue. “I remember that that was actually promoted at one point in time,” she said, referring to the prospect of a toll.
Commissioner Detert indicated that that idea originated with a resident who was being flippant about what would have to happen to get the state to agree to improve River Road.
Even though Maio had spoken with Nandam, Carusone added, she would like to have the confirmation from Nandam included in the final road swap agreement.
North Port Commissioner Jill Luke concurred with Carusone. “As we fade away into the sunset,” Luke said, future county and North Port commissioners may not have such close relationships with FDOT leaders. “It is best to have it within the contract, stating that there [will be] no tolls.”
The rumor, she pointed out, “went all the way around the county,” including North County.
The River Road facets of the swap
During his presentation, Anderson explained that FDOT will take ownership and maintenance responsibilities for River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75.
From the early part of the 2021 fiscal year through the 2024 fiscal year, he continued, FDOT plans to construct the improvements to North River Road. From U.S. 41 to Center Road, River Road will be widened to six lanes, he said. Then, from Center Road to I-75, it will be widened to four lanes.
The county will pay FDOT $24,750,000 to help cover the overall expected expense of nearly $74 million, he added. FDOT will cover any amount above the $24,750,000.
The county already has $6,750,000 in impact and mobility fee payments it has collected, Anderson noted. The City of North Port has committed $6 million of the $24,750,000, he added, and it already has transferred $2 million to the county.
Staff expects to have another $4 million in impact and mobility fee payments in hand by the time FDOT is ready to start its project, Anderson said, so county staff will work on the best plan for borrowing the additional $12 million.
As for South River Road: Design work has not begun for the improvements planned from U.S. 41 to State Road 776, he noted. “It’s a big chunk from U.S. 41 down to Winchester [Boulevard] and then … to the Charlotte county Line.”
However, he said, the county already owns “a significant portion of the right of way for that.”
The design expense will be about $5 million, he added. “The costs will escalate the longer we wait to do [the project].”
For example, he pointed out, about 18 months ago, staff research indicated that the initiative would cost approximately $64 million, “and now it’s up to $73 [million].”
The distance on South River Road from U.S. 41 to Winchester Boulevard is about 4.1 miles, according to a slide Anderson showed the boards. From Winchester Boulevard to the Charlotte County line is about 3 more miles.
On one positive note: Anderson said that county staff expects to open bids on Oct. 9 for a resurfacing project that should be completed by early 2020. That would focus on Winchester Boulevard from South River Road to the Charlotte County line.
North Port Vice Mayor Debbie McDowell asked Anderson whether anything could be done to make “a very dangerous curve” on South River Road safer, until the county can begin the major improvements on that stretch of road.
“Absolutely!” Anderson replied. At the city’s request, he said, the resurfacing project will include the installation of better signage and pavement markings, as well as “some rumble strips.” That undertaking, he continued, “will improve conditions for drivers. … The visibility of that [curve] is limited.”
As the presentation was concluding, commissioners remarked on how long both boards had worked to try to achieve the needed improvements on River Road.
“I think Commissioner Ziegler was in high school when [people] started saying, ‘Fix River Road,’” County Commissioner Detert pointed out.
When local leaders sought her help while she was serving in the Florida House and Senate, she added, she learned that the reason FDOT would not make the project a priority was because River Road was a county road. “Finally, after all these decades, we sorted it out.”