Final agreement involving swap of River Road and Siesta roads may be finalized in April, county engineer says

Details related to FDOT’s acceleration of schedule for project from West Villages Parkway to I-75 led to delay in original timeline

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

A new timeline has emerged as Sarasota County staff and representatives of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) work to finalize a swap involving River Road and roads on Siesta Key.

On Feb. 5, County Engineer Spencer Anderson notified Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham via email that the final draft of a Road Transfer Agreement (RTA) could be completed in April, for County Commission review. Staff received a copy of FDOT’s draft revisions for the agreement on Feb. 1, Anderson added. Those were under staff review, he wrote, “and will be processed for Board consideration.”

Among its facets, that Road Transfer Agreement is expected to define terms for FDOT to make improvements to the 90-degree curve on State Road 758 at the Higel Avenue/Siesta Drive intersection on Siesta Key, Anderson pointed out. Last year, during a presentation about tentative terms of the road swap, Anderson explained to the County Commission that staff was hopeful that FDOT would consent to adjusting that sharp curve. Numerous serious accidents have taken place at the site over the years, as a neighborhood organization on north Siesta Key — Make Siesta Drive Safer — has illustrated after reviewing public records.

Vehicles approach each other in the Siesta Drive/Higel Avenue curve in July 2017. File photo

In exchange for the state taking over River Road, the county will assume authority over Stickney Point Road and State Road 758 west of U.S. 41, except for the two drawbridges. The affected segments of State Road 758 are part of Siesta Drive, part of South Osprey Avenue, Bay Road, Higel Avenue and the part of Midnight Pass Road north of the Stickney Point Road intersection on Siesta Key.

For decades, county leaders were able to achieve only limited progress in their efforts to improve River Road, which is the primary hurricane evacuation route for South County and part of Charlotte County. Construction of thousands of new homes in the coming years in Venice and North Port — plus construction of a new Spring Training facility in the West Villages for the Atlanta Braves — underscored the urgency for county leaders, they said, to find a way to gain state support for the major projects needed on River Road.

In September 2017, then-County Administrator Tom Harmer announced that discussions about a potential road swap had begun. If River Road were under control of the state, he explained, FDOT representatives said they would be able to speed up the timetable for the improvements.

In January, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained to The Sarasota News Leader that FDOT project adjustments involving River Road — which were announced in December 2018 — had necessitated revisions of details that already had been worked out for the road swap. County staff originally had hoped to complete the swap before the end of 2018, but those changes delayed the process, Lewis said.

Maps show the segments of road to be swapped. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In his email, Anderson noted FDOT’s decision to accelerate funding for the construction of the improvements to River Road — including its widening — from West Villages Parkway to Interstate 75 to 2021, instead of 2024.

On Oct. 9, 2018, Anderson reminded Cunningham, the County Commission executed a Joint Project Agreement with FDOT regarding an even split — $3.5 million each — of the $7-million expense of the county’s completion of an update of the road design — plus the permitting, right of way acquisition and final construction plans — for River Road from the West Villages Parkway to I-75. Then, in December 2018, FDOT notified the county that it intended to complete the design/permitting update and final construction plans, so the county would be responsible only for the right of way acquisition.

“Therefore,” Anderson wrote, FDOT “did not execute the original [Joint Project Agreement] but rather made revisions consistent with the change in scope of the County’s work.”

The Road Transfer Agreement will include details of the timing of the swap, the permitting responsibilities in regard to the necessary projects on River Road “and other associated details,” Anderson pointed out in his email.

As of Feb. 4, Anderson continued, FDOT had indicated that it would provide an initial draft of the RTA to the county no later than Feb. 28. If that is received as expected, Anderson continued, staff will review the proposed agreement with the Office of the County Attorney, “negotiate any necessary changes with FDOT and process a final RTA for Board consideration in April 2019.”

A graphic in an April 2017 county fact sheet shows investments made in River Road as of that time. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After Cunningham passed along Anderson’s information to the commissioners on Feb. 8, Commissioner Christian Ziegler responded, “I’m encouraged, excited and optimistic about getting River Road done, and as you know, it’s a top priority. With that in mind — please do not hesitate to let me know if there is anything (big or small) that I can personally do to help your team move this project along (especially when it comes to outreach to or any speed bumps in Tallahassee).”

After his election to the board in November 2018, Ziegler also won the position of vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida. Like Ziegler, the chair is a Sarasota resident, as well — Joe Gruters, who was elected to the state Senate in November 2018.

During the Feb. 13 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Nancy Detert talked of having attended recent meetings of groups in North Port and Englewood, with River Road having been a big focus of discussion. “River Road is thehot topic down in South County,” she said. “They’re thrilled … that it’s moving forward.”