County administration awaiting FDOT response to details it has spelled out in April 6 letter regarding proposed River Road/Siesta roads swap

List of commitments includes FDOT plan to construct permanent improvement to 90-degree curve at intersection of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive

A segment of River Road is shown on a county fact sheet produced in 2016. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County leaders sent a letter on April 6 to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), spelling out the latest details of a proposed road swap involving River Road and Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue, Midnight Pass Road and Stickney Point Road on Siesta Key.

A summary accompanying the letter includes one key point that has not been raised in past discussions of the road swap: the FDOT commitment to “design, acquire necessary right of way, permit and construct a permanent improvement to the roughly 90-degree bend on [State Road] 758 within the City of Sarasota near the intersection of Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue.” That would take place before the county assumed responsibility for that section of the road network on Siesta Key, the summary adds, noting, “The County will have approval authority over the proposed improvement design.”

A committee of the Bay Island Siesta Association — Make Siesta Drive Safer — has been pressing FDOT since last year to make significant changes on Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue because of the number of accidents — including several with fatalities — that have occurred on that 1.9-mile stretch west of South Osprey Avenue. Pat Wulf, president of the association, told members of the Siesta Key Association in January that members of the committee hosted FDOT representatives for a site visit in August 2017. He summed up their response to that 90-degree curve as “Wow! This is messed up!”

A graphic shows the segments of River Road, State Road 72 and State Road 758 that would be the focus of a proposed road swap with the state. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis referred to the April 6 letter in remarks to the County Commission during its regular meeting on April 10 in Venice. “We don’t have a response back, frankly, from DOT at this point,” Lewis said.

In an April 9 email, Commissioner Charles Hines had asked Lewis about providing an update to the board this week.

The negotiations have intensified in recent months as county leaders have sought a means of speeding up the improvements planned for River Road to improve hurricane evacuations, serve thousands of new residents who will be moving into South County developments and handle future traffic heading to the Atlanta Braves’ Spring Training complex, which is under construction in the West Villages.

Assistant Sarasota County Administrator Mark Cunningham sent the letter to L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s District 1 secretary in Bartow, summing up the proposals offered thus far for the exchange. River Road would become a state road, while the Siesta roads would transfer to county authority.

The April 6 letter — copies of which staff had provided to the commissioners, Lewis added — lays out “where we think the offer is to DOT,” Lewis said.

Nandam does plan to come to Sarasota within the next week or two to talk with county staff, Lewis noted, and the county’s lobbyist in Tallahassee is “continuing to apply the pressure … I know it’s not the pace all of us would like,” Lewis said, “but we do continue to work on that item.”

An aerial map shows a segment of River Road north of U.S. 41, with multiple residential developments in the area. Image from Google Maps

Nonetheless, Hines pointed out, after decades of county efforts to achieve the desired improvements to River Road, “we may be weeks away from striking a deal … Stay focused on it.”

The summary accompanying the April 6 letter provides these additional details about the proposal on the table.

  • The transfer of River Road from State Road 776 to Interstate 75 would begin this year but it would not be finalized until some point prior to the start of construction in the 2024 fiscal year. The process has to start this year, the document explains, “in order for construction funding to be included in the FDOT’s FY19-24 Five-Year [Work Plan].”
  • After FDOT completes construction of the approximately 3.644-mile segment of River Road from West Villages Parkway to I-75, the county would take over ownership and maintenance responsibility for State Road 758 (Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue and Midnight Pass Road) and Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41. “This transfer will not include the two moveable bascule bridges, or their approaches, over the Intracoastal Waterway on Siesta Drive (north bridge) and Stickney Point Road (south bridge),” the summary points out.
  • The county will update the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis, regulatory permits and design plans, and then acquire the outstanding right of way “necessary to provide a final construction plan for bidding” for the River Road improvements from U.S. 41 to I-75. The county and FDOT each would pay $3.5 million toward those efforts, beginning in the 2019 fiscal year for the state, which will begin on July 1, 2019. “Any remaining funds from this effort will be put towards County construction obligations,” the summary adds.
  • The county will complete construction on River Road from U.S. 41 to West Villages Parkway (approximately 1.647 miles at a cost of about $24 million) beginning in the county’s 2021 fiscal year, which would start on Oct. 1, 2020. FDOT would be responsible for any expenses above the $24-million mark, the summary notes.

• FDOT would complete construction of the River Road improvements from West Villages Parkway to I-75 (approximately 3.644 miles at a cost of about $41 million) beginning in the state’s 2024 fiscal year, the summary says.