Late September new tentative timeline for conclusion of road swap involving Siesta Key and River Road

County engineer says he is working toward County Commission review of draft FDOT agreement on Sept. 24 or 25

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

If the tentative timeline proves out, the Sarasota County Commission next month finally will be able to vote on the swap of River Road to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) that it has been negotiating for more than two years.

County Engineer Spencer Anderson told The Sarasota News Leaderthis week that he is working on a schedule calling for the commission’s review of the draft agreement during one of its regular meetings in late September, Sept. 24 or 25.

In exchange for making River Road a state road, the county will assume authority for roads on Siesta Key, plus the portion of Stickney Point Road west of the intersection with U.S. 41. The other Siesta segments, designated State Road 758, encompass North Midnight Pass Road, part of Higel Avenue and part of Siesta Drive.

Members of the Make Siesta Drive Safer committee of the Bay Island Siesta organization especially have talked of their eagerness in seeing the transition completed. They have been focused on plans for FDOT to assist the county with a number of long-sought improvements at the almost 90-degree curve where Siesta Drive meets Higel Avenue on the northern part of the barrier island. They also are hoping they can convince FDOT to lower the speed limit over a greater stretch of the road.

At the News Leader’s request, FDOT District One spokesman Brian Rick provided the publication a copy of the draft Roadway Transfer Agreement this week.

Formally, the draft calls for a transfer to the county road system of State Road 72 (Stickney Point Road) from U.S. 41 to State Road 758 (Midnight Pass Road), except for the drawbridge; and the transfer of State Road 758 from Stickney Point Road to U.S. 41, except for the Siesta Drive drawbridge. The segment of Stickney Point Road from U.S. 41 to the Midnight Pass Road intersection encompasses 0.980 miles, the document says.

The affected portion of State Road 758 covers 5.771 miles, the document notes.

Additionally, the county would assume authority for the two fixed bridges on State Road 758, including one on the northern end of the island referred to as the “hump bridge.”

This graphic, shown to the County Commission in May, provides details about the plans to improve the sharp curve at the intersection of Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The state will take over North River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75, the document adds. That is a distance of 5.302 miles, the document points out. The date that occurs, the draft says, will be the date FDOT will begin its work on the improvements.

County commissioners long had sought a way to achieve the widening of River Road, along with other needed improvements — including better drainage systems — as residential growth increased in South County. No matter how much lobbying they did in Tallahassee, however, commissioners bemoaned the fact that state leaders insisted River Road would not be a priority for state funding as long as it remained a county road.

The Atlanta Braves’ decision in 2017 to relocate the team’s Spring Training operations to a new complex in the West Villages heightened board members’ desire to find a way to achieve their River Road visions. The commissioners no longer were focused just on burgeoning residential growth. At that point, they were talking about the potential for thousands of Braves fans from the Southeastern United States to come to Venice and North Port in the spring to see the team play.

Then-County Administrator Tom Harmer first publicly broached the idea of the road swap during the Sept. 13, 2017 County Commission meeting. A Sept. 6 memo to Harmer from Anderson, who then was interim director of the county’s Public Works Department, said, “Possible advantages of this transfer … may include advanced funding and construction of River Road between West Villages Parkway and I-75.”

During the September 2017 meeting, Harmer told the commissioners he had talked about the swap with L.K. Nandam, secretary of FDOT’s District One, which includes Sarasota County.

At one point, county staff seemed hopeful that the agreement could be completed before the end of 2018. In an early May update, county Public Works Director Anderson told the News Leaderhe expected the conclusion of the swap to take place “this summer.”

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

Asked about the longer timeline to reach this point, Rick of FDOT wrote in an Aug. 14 email to the News Leader, “The Florida Department of Transportation is still negotiating the agreement with Sarasota County. We have a majority of the details worked out and agreed upon. However, there are still one or two items we are actively negotiating on that would change the language in any draft agreement someone may have. We have tried to get this agreement completed sooner, but on average, most major roadway transfers like this take at least a year or two to complete.”

One reason for the delay was FDOT’s decision in the late fall of 2018 to move up its funding allocation for its construction of the River Road improvements from the West Villages Parkway to I-75. Instead of keeping that project in the 2024 fiscal year, as the department had announced earlier in 2018, FDOT said it was preparing to undertake the project in the 2021 fiscal year.

County staff told the News Leaderthat the change in the timetable would allow for the construction of all of the River Road improvements from U.S. 41 to I-75 to begin in FY21, as the county already had scheduled its River Road project from U.S. 41 to West Villages Parkway for the same year.

That news followed the announcement that the county had won approval for a $14-million loan from the State Infrastructure Bank to enable the county to proceed in FY21 with its share of the River Road project.

The county commissioners reviewed this timeline on May 22, 2018 before voting formally to approve the concept of the swap. In late 2018, FDOT announced it was moving up the timeline of its project on River Road to coincide with the county project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Oct. 9, 2018, the commissioners had voted unanimously to approve an agreement with FDOT for the project development and environmental re-evaluation (PD&E), right of way acquisition, and design for the improvements to River Road between U.S. 41 and I-75, at a cost of $3.5 million.

The PD&E study is conducted to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, FDOT explains. “During the study, we determine the location and conceptual design of feasible build alternatives for roadway improvements and their social, economic and environmental effects,” an FDOT webpage points out.

The draft agreement Rick provided the News Leader says the county will allocate $750,000 for the PD&E/Design of the North River Road Project and $24 million for the construction of it, “and FDOT agrees to provide any additional funding that exceeds the $24 million provided by the County.”

Other facets of the draft agreement

After the road swap, the draft agreement says, the county will be responsible for the operation and maintenance of its portion of Stickney Point Road, including “all traffic stripes and markings, raised pavement markers, asphalt pavement, sweeping, litter pick-up and graffiti removal, signs owned by the local agency, roadway lighting, underdeck lighting, seawalls and parking lots.”

The same language covers the State Road 758 segment.

In regard to North River Road, the draft calls for the county to acquire all of the right of way necessary for construction of the improvements. It adds that the county already has obtained “all the regulatory permits.”

It adds, “An official/finalized right of way map acceptable to FDOT shall be presented to FDOT by 4/30/2020.”