Plan for I-75 overpass from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to North Cattlemen Road wins County Commission’s unanimous support

About two-thirds of the speakers during the public hearing say they believe, ultimately, that the route should extend to Honore Avenue

An illustration shows the proposed overpass. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Speakers representing the DeSoto Lakes and Meadows communities traded quips about efforts to influence the location of the project. Nonetheless, the Sarasota County Commission this week unanimously agreed with staff that a proposed Interstate 75 overpass from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard should end at Cattlemen Road in the southern segment of Nathan Benderson Park.

Officially, the board voted unanimously on Jan. 24 to approve a Comprehensive Plan amendment that will reflect inclusion of the overpass in the county’s future road network, though money has not been committed to the project.

Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, told the county’s Planning Commission in December 2016, “I can’t say that it’s going to be done in the next five years, 10 years, because it’s going to depend on when we get the funding.”

One of the first steps in the effort to obtain money for the overpass, she told the County Commission this week, is to get the route included in the Comprehensive Plan.

The goal of the road will be to alleviate congestion on University Parkway and Fruitville Road, as it will serve as another major east-west connector, Wiggins explained to the County Commission on Jan. 24. “Over the last five or six years, there’s been a significant amount of development that has occurred in the northeastern county,” she pointed out. Modeling undertaken by the state and the county had demonstrated the need for the new east/west route, she said.

A second graphic shows a different view of the proposed overpass. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, is bound by an agreement with the county to handle the design, engineering and permitting of the connector, she added. It also is working on a four-lane extension of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard from University Parkway to a terminus at the southernmost part of its Villages of Lakewood Ranch South development, she explained. Additionally, it is constructing a four-lane extension of Lorraine Road from University Parkway to Fruitville Road. That work, combined with the completion of the Florida Department of Transportation’s diverging diamond interchange at I-75 and University Parkway, should ameliorate the traffic congestion in that area, Wiggins said.

Originally scheduled for completion this fall — before Sarasota and Manatee counties host the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park — the most recent estimate shows completion of the diverging diamond this spring, she added.

As for the overpass from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard: Wiggins explained, “Staff has actually gone above and beyond what we would normally do” in work on such a Comprehensive Plan amendment. As a result of comments made at community workshops that staff hosted, she said, and public requests for information, “we have provided some more depth.” County staff even hired a consultant, she pointed out, to assist with proposing options for the overpass’ route.

Paula Wiggins. File photo

The result, Wiggins continued, was four alternatives, plus a “no-build” option:

  • Alternative 1: I-75 overpass crossing from Professional Parkway to North Cattlemen Road at the northern end of Nathan Benderson Park.
  • Alternative 2: I-75 overpass crossing from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to North Cattlemen Road at the southern end of Benderson Park.
  • Alternative 3: I-75 overpass crossing from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to North Cattlemen Road at the southern end of Benderson Park and extending to Honore Avenue.
  • Alternative 4: I-75 overpass crossing from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard to North Cattlemen Road at the southern end of Benderson Park and extending to Deer Hollow Boulevard.

The consultant proposed Alternative 3 as the “best option for the transportation network,” Wiggins noted. However, because of community opposition, staff settled on Alternative 2, she said, “which was the second-best scenario in the overall scheme of things.” Because the route is a reasonable distance from both the University Parkway and Fruitville Road interchanges, she added, it should provide sufficient relief for traffic congestion on those east-west corridors.

Residents of The Meadows advocated for Alternative 1, she said, but its proximity to the University Parkway interchange was problematic: It would not provide an attractive enough option to drivers on Fruitville Road.

Likewise, she noted, Alternative 4 would not offer sufficient relief to traffic congestion in the area.

The Shroeder-Manatee initiatives

As he had during the Dec. 15, 2016 Planning Commission meeting on the Comprehensive Plan amendment, Richard Bedford, vice president of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), explained to the County Commission the work that firm already has underway. The projects include not only the four-lane segment of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard on the SMR property and the widening of Lorraine Road, but also a four-lane extension of Deer Drive to Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. All are scheduled to be completed in June 2017, he told the Planning Commission.

Richard Bedford. News Leader photo

As he understood it, he said on Jan. 24, county staff is close to completing the acquisition of rights of way necessary for the extension of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard south of the SMR’s Villages of Lakewood Ranch South property. After all of the rights of way been secured, he said, it should take only about 14 months for the county to start work on its portion of the boulevard.

He also explained that as development picks up in the southern portion of the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South, SMR will construct another east-west connector that will be two lanes.

Further, he voiced his support for Alternative 2 for the overpass.

Public views

Of the eight other people who commented on the proposed overpass route during the Jan. 24 public hearing, six told the commissioners they supported the staff recommendation, but at some point, they felt the overpass should be extended to Honore.

One of those was Gary Heffner, chair of the Fruitville 210 Community Alliance. That “remains the most logical and most functional proposal,” he said of the Honore connection. “It’s the most logical thing to keep a westward flow.”

Heffner added that the 27 neighborhoods the Alliance represents “recognize the overpass as an important mobility piece” connecting the Fruitville Road community from the Celery Fields — a popular destination for bird-watching — to the Mall at University Town Center and Benderson Park. “We believe that it’s an important aid in keeping traffic dispersed and less dependent on arterial roads.”

Ron Saba, president of the DeSoto Lakes Neighborhood Association, criticized residents of The Meadows for advocating for Alternative 1. He pointed out that it would create problems for the 3,000 to 4,000 residents in DeSoto Lakes.

However, Jim McCormack, a resident of The Meadows, said he sympathized with the DeSoto Lakes community. “I think the compromise [of Alternative 2] is a very good one.”

Board comments

Richard Bedford showed the board this graphic with the three roadway segments Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is constructing: Lorraine, Lakewood Ranch Boulevard across its Villages of Lakewood Ranch South property and Deer Drive. File photo

Before the board took its vote, Commissioner Nancy Detert commended staff for its community outreach. “You’re never going to get 100% buy-in.” However, she continued, based on the correspondence from the public that she had read, the majority of it indicated residents were pleased with Alternative 2.

Commissioner Charles Hines made the motion to approve the Comprehensive Plan amendment with Alternative 2. “I think we’ve reached a good compromise on the design. … This is really moving our grid system forward.”

Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out that many South County residents, as well as those in North County, routinely travel to the University Parkway area and deal with the congestion. The planning for Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, “plus the overpass, plus the diverging diamond, begins — if people are patient — to help with that tremendous problem.”

Moreover, Maio noted, as the county’s representative on the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority board, he is aware that “some pretty giant diameter water pipes,” which will serve four counties, will be installed on Lorraine Road as part of the SMR initiative. “So this is a pretty important, multi-faceted infrastructure project.”

After Chair Paul Caragiulo announced the 5-0 vote in favor of Alternative 2, applause rang out in the Commission Chambers.