County commissioners agree they should accept FDOT offer on proposed road swap after department insists on its original terms

County would assume responsibility for roads on Siesta Key, but not the drawbridges on Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road

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

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has made its final “road swap” offer involving River Road and the roads west of U.S. 41 that lead onto Siesta Key.

“There’s really no negotiating on this … at least from the secretary’s perspective,” Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the county commissioners during their regular meeting on May 8 in Venice.

Lewis was referring to a May 2 letter from L.K. Nandam, secretary of FDOT’s District One.

Nandam had reiterated that the District One position on the road swap was unchanged as he replied to an April 6 letter from Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham, who had outlined the county’s latest proposal. “This is the original offer,” Lewis said. “It’s a ‘Take it or leave it’ [position]. … We’re not going back with counter proposals …”

On a May 8 motion by Commissioner Charles Hines, seconded by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, the board members directed Lewis to draft language for them to review during their May 22 meeting, accepting FDOT’s terms in that May 2 letter.

“We can’t do this little bites at a time,” Hines added of the county’s trying to undertake all the River Road improvements that have been planned. “We’ll be working at it for 10 to 15 years,” he said, noting that that long a period was not reasonable

The terms call for FDOT to take on responsibility for construction on River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75. In exchange, the county would take over Siesta Drive and Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key, as well as Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41. The county would not have to maintain the drawbridges on Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road, Lewis said, “which has been an important point for us.”

Vehicles approach each other in the Siesta Drive/Higel Avenue curve. File photo

FDOT also would reconstruct the almost 90-degree curve at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive before turning over that segment of road to the county.

Further, the county would be responsible for constructing the improvements on River Road from U.S. 41 to West Villages Parkway, a distance of about 1.6 miles, at an estimated cost of $24 million, Nandam wrote in his May 2 letter. That undertaking would be planned for FDOT’s 2021 fiscal year, Nandam noted. FDOT would be responsible for any expense exceeding $24 million, Nandam noted.

An aerial view shows South River Road between U.S. 41 and Englewood. Image from Google Maps

In his April 6 letter, Cunningham had proposed that the state also take ownership of the portion of River Road that extends to State Road 776 in Englewood.

FDOT projects its expense for the segment of River Road from West Villages Parkway to I-75 — about 4 miles — to be $41 million, Nandam added in his May 2 letter. That project would be planned for FDOT’s 2024 fiscal year.

As outlined in the April 6 letter, Sarasota County will handle the necessary work — including design, completion of the right of way acquisition and final construction plans for the bidding process — for the improvements of River Road from U.S. 41 to I-75. However, the approximately $7-million expense would be split equally between FDOT and the county, beginning in FDOT’s 2019 fiscal year.

Nandam wrote that Cunningham’s April 6 counter offer was “not acceptable [to FDOT] because it [did] not reflect a lane mile to lane mile exchange with relatively equal maintenance costs and would require substantial additional future investment for the segment of River Road from [State Road] 776 to US 41.”

Looking for board direction

District One Secretary L.K. Nandam speaks to Siesta Key Association members in September 2015. File photo

Lewis had not put an item on the May 8 agenda regarding Nandam’s letter but, instead, had scheduled a commission discussion on May 22. After Hines brought up the matter during his report on May 8, Lewis said he would welcome any direction from the board.

“To me,” Hines told his colleagues, “the only way we can get River Road done in any reasonable time frame is to turn it over to [FDOT].”

Over the past three to four years, Hines continued, the necessity of the River Road improvements have been underscored by “the tremendous growth in the West Villages,” new residential growth in North Port and western Charlotte County, and the Atlanta Braves’ decision to relocate their Spring Training operations to the West Villages, with their first full season there set for 2020.

Although board members and staff were optimistic that FDOT would be willing to take over South River Road, Hines noted, the most important area for the community is the section from U.S. 41 to I-75.

“We just went through a hurricane,” he added of Irma in September 2017, “but I’ll say, ‘practice [hurricane],’” since Irma did not make a direct strike on the county. Nonetheless, he pointed out, “We can’t wait any longer.”

Both Sarasota and Charlotte county commissioners have cited the necessity of River Road as an evacuation route for people fleeing a hurricane predicted to make landfall, as Irma was last year, on the west coast of Florida.

As for Midnight Pass Road: Hines pointed out that county staff has stressed that the road is constrained. “You’re not going to widen Midnight Pass Road. … It is what it is.”

“I think that Commissioner Hines summarized it,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. “We can deal with Midnight Pass Road,” Maio added. “Enhancement of crosswalks and that sort of thing are certainly things that we can do.”

Residents of Bay Tree Club on South Midnight Pass Road have been pleading with county staff for a painted crosswalk because of the number of people who routinely cross the road between the Gulf of Mexico and bay segments of the complex and the increasing volume of traffic. Bay Tree Club resident Betsy Lynch watches a vehicle speed toward her as she attempts to cross the road on April 9. Rachel Hackney photo

Maio also noted the FDOT proposal for a major reconstruction of the sharp curve where Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive meet on Siesta Key. Nandam’s May 2 letter says that the project would be developed by the county “with input from the Department. This would occur after the jurisdictional road transfer as a planned improvement to an off-system facility.”

Members of the Make Siesta Drive Safer Committee of the Bay Island Siesta Association have been pushing for about a year for FDOT to make conditions safer on Siesta Drive and Higel. They have pointed out that FDOT representatives have told them the speed limit on the two roads could be lowered if the county took over responsibility for those segments. Reducing the speed limit from 40 mph to 30 mph all along Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue has been one major change for which the committee has called.

Chair Nancy Detert did point out during the May 8 discussion that after she first was elected to the Florida Legislature in 1998 — starting out as a state representative before winning a Senate seat — many Sarasota County commissioners visited her over the years to ask for state funds for improvements to River Road. “The time was 20 years ago,” she added, for the county to get those projects underway.

Nandam and his predecessor in the District One office — Billy Hattaway — “have been realistic and reasonable to work with,” she said. If the commission could not finalize the road swap at this point, Detert told her colleagues, “we’d better start thinking of how to pay for [River Road projects] ourselves.”