County staff working to avoid moving ‘critical’ utility lines for a Legacy Trail overpass in South County

Chief Engineer Isaac Brownman and County Administrator Tom Harmer hope to convince FDOT staff to redesign and delay the Laurel Road project

A rendering of the current design for the Laurel Road overpass is on The Friends of the Legacy Trail website. Image from the website
A rendering of the current design for the Laurel Road overpass is on The Friends of The Legacy Trail website. Image courtesy Friends of The Legacy Trail

Yes, they want the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to complete an overpass of Laurel Road for The Legacy Trail as soon as possible, the Sarasota County commissioners have confirmed. But, no, the county should not be forced to relocate a 30-inch water line that serves 60 percent of its customers.

Therefore, as a result of two unanimous votes on June 7, they will seek support of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) board at its June 28 meeting for the reallocation of federal funding from another county project to enable FDOT to redesign the overpass, and they will ask for a delay in the scheduling of the bridge project from the 2016-17 fiscal year to the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Regardless of what transpires with the MPO and FDOT, Chief County Engineer Isaac Brownman explained on June 7, county staff will need extra time to deal with utility line issues at the project site, as two other lines will have to be moved. He confirmed that the new fiscal year for the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) begins on July 1, and FDOT had planned to use federal funding for the overpass in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

Brownman and County Administrator Tom Harmer told the commissioners on June 7 that they would try to talk with Billy Hattaway, secretary for FDOT District One — which includes Sarasota County — to persuade him of the need for the county to avoid relocating the 30-inch water main and an 18-inch force main.

Isaac Brownman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Isaac Brownman. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Nonetheless, Brownman cautioned the board, as recently as the previous day, he learned that FDOT had contacted the MPO staff to question whether the Federal Highway Administration would support the reallocation of funding from one county project to another in an effort to “avoid utility conflicts … as [FDOT] expressed it.”

The $470,209 in federal funding targeted by the County Commission for the redesign originally was planned for a Central Sarasota Parkway interchange at Interstate 75, a project the board has chosen not to pursue at this time. If the money were not used for that interchange, Brownman explained, it “would be swept away.” If the MPO and county staff members are successful in their discussions with FDOT representatives, Brownman indicated, the money will be put to good use after all.

The details

In advance of the county Commission’s June 7 discussion, Brownman had issued a memo outlining the overpass situation. The 30-inch water main that would have to be moved if FDOT were to pursue the bridge project as designed would mean 60 percent of the county’s water customers would be without potable water service “for a period of time” while crews worked to complete a new connection. That June 1 memo also calls the 18-inch force main a critical line in county infrastructure.

However, staff would have far less difficulty in relocating two “non-critical” utility lines out of the area proposed for the overpass. One of them is a 6-inch force main, while the other is a 10-inch water main, Brownman’s memo explains. If FDOT were to redesign the bridge to allow the other two lines to stay in place, Brownman continued in the memo, the cost would be “roughly $300,000” for the redesign and less than $600,000 for construction. The original expense was projected at $600,000, he noted in the memo, but that was for a three-span bridge, while county staff is proposing a two-span option.

In his discussions with FDOT staff, Brownman explained to the board, he has been “trying to emphasize the importance of the logistics of this particular [water main]. There’s a little bit of a coordination issue still going on.”

Commissioner Charles Hines talks with County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
Commissioner Charles Hines talks with County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

Commissioner Charles Hines also sought clarification that if the overpass as designed were constructed, and the water main stayed in place, the bridge would put a lot of weight on the line and hinder access to it, “if there was a problem [that necessitated staff working on it].”

“You are absolutely correct,” Brownman responded. “It is the weight of the material above the line.”

Hines said did not understand why FDOT had not opted for a bridge design similar to The Legacy Trail structure over U.S. 41, which is on concrete pillars. He then asked Brownman, “Is this bridge being designed purely for walking, biking,” with no plans whatsoever for vehicles ever to cross it?

“I believe that’s correct,” Brownman told him.

Even in the event of an emergency, Hines continued, if, for example, a person at the top of the overpass suffered a critical injury, emergency medical technicians would reach the person by means other than a vehicle? Brownman concurred that that would be the case.

“Is this bridge being over-designed from a weight aspect” and possibly even over-designed in general, Hines then asked.

Brownman replied that he was not sure about “the thought process” that went into FDOT’s planning.

“This potential design is distinctive,” Brownman replied, noting that it does not incorporate pillars. “It’s a stabilized earth structure with a massive foundation underneath.”

“I never liked the look of it,” Hines said, “but we need [the overpass]; we want it.” Still, he continued, FDOT’s desire not to consider another design at this point just underscores people’s skepticism about government bureaucracy. “We need it, we want it,” Hines reiterated his earlier comment, “but we can’t just be silly about it.”

The Orange County 441 bridge Commissioner Charles Hines referenced is on the Rails to Trails system. Image by DrPMO via Wikimedia Commons
The Orange County 441 bridge Commissioner Charles Hines referenced is on the Rails to Trails system. Image by DrPMO via Wikimedia Commons

Later, Hines pointed out that he had found an overpass design in Orange County in the state’s Rails to Trails bicycle program that he believed would work over Laurel Road. “It seems like we always are re-creating the wheel on everything we do,” he added. “There’s hundreds of Rails to Trails bridges we could pick from,” he said, voicing frustration over “how difficult things became” in this situation.

The need for the overpass

“This is so, so far from a convenience issue,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said as the discussion continued, concurring with Hines about the need for the overpass to be completed soon. She pointed out that “thousands of homes” have been approved for construction in Venice. Residents of those new dwellings will use Laurel Road as their main route to U.S. 41, she noted. With the proximity of The Legacy Trail to Laurel Road, she added, she already has witnessed multiple near misses of bicyclists and vehicles, including one incident in which she was involved.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

“‘Health,’ ‘safety,’ ‘welfare’ are the main tenants of county government” Robinson told her colleagues. “This certainly falls under ‘Safety’ in my book.”

She also pointed out that board members recently traveled to Tallahassee to make the case for state funding assistance to extend The Legacy Trail north from Palmer Ranch to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota and east to North Port. “So we’re going to see the population go up on this trail.”

Chair Al Maio noted that the most recent statistic the board had received showed 120,000 annual users of the Trail.

Moreover, Robinson said, the new connector from The Legacy Trail to North Port is scheduled to be completed this fall, and the groundbreaking for a new Venice segment is set for November. The latter, Robinson noted, “is extremely close to Laurel Road.”

When Robinson asked Brownman about how much construction costs are rising, he replied that staff has documented increases of 4 to 6 percent — even 8 percent, in some cases — over the past couple of years.

His belief, Brownman continued, is that FDOT staff members had not realized the significance of the 30-inch water main and the 18-inch force main at the location of the overpass, and they are blaming Sarasota County staff for not making the situation clear to them earlier.

When Robinson then asked whether he thought it would be worthwhile for the board to ask a third party to undertake a “value engineering” review of the overpass design, Brownman said, “We would have no problem with that.” He added, however, that he expected it would be more difficult to persuade FDOT to agree.

In response to a question from Robinson about the cost of such a review, Brownman told her that if a member of the county’s Public Works Department has sufficient expertise in bridge design to handle the work, that would lessen concern about expense.

Billy Hattaway. Image courtesy FDOT
Billy Hattaway. Image courtesy FDOT

“Perhaps we should take a step back and ponder that idea,” she replied.

“Yes, ma’am,” Brownman responded.

When Hines asked whether it would be helpful — from a political standpoint — for the board members to talk with FDOT representatives about the issues, that was when Brownman suggested he try again to contact Hattaway. He had failed in an earlier attempt to reach the district secretary, he pointed out. Since then, he has been working with FDOT “chain of command.” Brownman added, “I would say we are at a bit of an impasse at this point.”

County Administrator Harmer told the board he would be happy to assist Brownman in trying to reach the secretary and report back to the board.

On June 15, Brownman provided the following comment to The Sarasota News Leader through county spokesman Drew Winchester: “Sarasota County Public Works continues to work with FDOT District One Director of Transportation Development, Mr. Chris Smith. Sarasota County will also be following up with Secretary Hattaway in accordance with statements made at the June 7, 2016 Commission meeting.”