Redesign of Legacy Trail overpass at Laurel Road could delay project until 2018-19 fiscal year

FDOT responds to Sarasota County’s efforts to prevent the relocation of a water line that serves 60 percent of its customers, plus three other utility lines

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 from the website

If the Sarasota County Commission wants a redesign of a Legacy Trail overpass at Laurel Road, the earliest that can occur — and construction can begin — likely will be the 2018-19 fiscal year, the director of transportation development for the Florida Department of Transportation has notified the chief county engineer.

That was the news Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham delivered by email to the commission on July 18, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Nonetheless, Cunningham added, “Discussions are ongoing to determine if the project can be redesigned or modified to keep it on its current schedule, and within a reasonable budget.”

For months, county staff has been working with FDOT representatives in an effort to see the overpass modified so the county will not have to relocate a 30-inch water line that serves 60 percent of the county’s customers.

An 18-inch sewer force main is in the same vicinity, Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer has explained. If FDOT pursued its preferred overpass design, Brownman explained in a memo this spring, the county would have to move a total of four utility lines out of concern that the weight of the bridge could damage them and hinder access to them.

The bigger issues are the 30-inch water main and the force main, he told the board on June 7. Water customers would be without service “for a period of time” if that water line had to be relocated, he pointed out.

Yet, because of new residential growth already planned in the Laurel Road area — and continuing improvements to The Legacy Trail in South County — the commissioners remained hopeful that the overpass could be completed in the 2017-18 fiscal year, if details could be worked out regarding the redesign and funding.

Isaac Brownman. File photo
Isaac Brownman. File photo

In his July 12 letter to Brownman, FDOT’s Chris Smith notes that the County Commission and the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) both had voted “in favor of repurposing unused federal funds that were earmarked for other projects” so the money could be redirected to the Legacy Trail overpass for Laurel Road. “FDOT will seek approval from the FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] to reallocate the funds as desired by Sarasota County.” However, he added, “Please keep in mind that FHWA will make the final determination of the acceptability of utilization for this project.”

Then Smith pointed out that that action would affect the state department’s Five-Year Work Program in a number of ways. “The redesign effort will have to start from nearly the beginning since the structural design will completely change,” he wrote. “Therefore, it appears that only the survey and geotechnical information can be salvaged.”

Given the assumption that the redesign could be completed and construction start in the 2018-19 fiscal year, Smith wrote, that still would necessitate the MPO’s deciding whether it wished to put the project on the schedule for that year. If so, Smith continued, the MPO also would have to determine which projects already programmed for that fiscal year it should delay “in favor of the Legacy Trail Overpass project.”

“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said of Smith’s letter when she spoke with the News Leader during a July 20 telephone interview. “I was hoping we could get this project done a lot sooner.”

Because she will be stepping down from the board in November as a result of term limits, she continued, “I think the prioritization [of the overpass redesign and construction] will be the decision of the new commission.”

With the board members on their annual summer break, the next commission meeting will be a budget workshop on Aug. 22. Two regular meetings will follow it on Aug. 23 and 24.

Robinson told the News Leader she anticipates the overpass issue will be addressed at one of those sessions. In the meantime, she said, staff is “just analyzing [Smith’s letter] and absorbing it as well. We’re going to need to know how to handle this with the MPO.”

Months-long dialogue

The Orange County 441 bridge on the Rails to Trails system has been suggested. Image by DrPMO via Wikimedia Commons
In June, County Commissioner Charles Hines suggested the design of the Orange County 441 bridge on the Rails to Trails system could be used over Laurel Road. Image by DrPMO via Wikimedia Commons

On April 27, Brownman sent a letter to Smith, telling him that while the commission and staff were aware “of the time and cost that FDOT has expended in reaching the 90% design stage and wish to continue this project if financially feasible to do so,” staff also had been working on numerous options for resolving the issues regarding the utility lines. “None of the options identified appear to be economical or timely,” Brownman wrote.

“Although Sarasota County very much desires to construct this overpass to serve the County citizens,” Brownman continued, “we are now at the point of questioning the viability of continuing the project which has grown from an initial plan of $1.2 million to more than $3.6 million.” The county’s Utilities Department would have to absorb the estimated $750,000 expense of the relocations of the water and sewer lines out of that $3.6 million, he added.

“In addition,” Brownman pointed out, staff “is seriously concerned with the logistics of the relocation of the 30-inch water main” because of its impact on 60 percent of county residents.

This Legacy Trail bridge crosses U.S. 41 near Venice. File photo
This Legacy Trail bridge crosses U.S. 41 near Venice. File photo

During the County Commission discussion on June 7, Commissioner Charles Hines questioned why FDOT was not willing to redesign the bridge. When he asked Brownman whether the overpass ever would be used by vehicles, Brownman replied that he thought it would not, even in the event of an emergency.

Subsequently, Brownman contacted FDOT staff to clarify that point.

In a June 21 email, FDOT District One Project Manager Ryan Weeks wrote, “The intent is for emergency vehicles to cross Laurel Rd. at grade,” adding, “The structure was designed for pedestrian live loads and an H10 vehicle.”

According to FDOT guidelines, an H10 vehicle needs a clear bridge deck width greater than 10 feet; the gross weight of the truck used for design purposes is 20,000 pounds.

FDOT material about pedestrian bridges includes this image explaining H10 vehicles. Image courtesy FDOT
FDOT material about pedestrian bridges includes this image explaining H10 vehicles. Image courtesy FDOT

Weeks continued, “The cage covering the bridge span over the roadway also restricts the size of potential vehicles that one may attempt to drive over the bridge. This was a question that was discussed early on and keeps popping back up each time a new stakeholder gets involved. The intent of the pedestrian bridge is for pedestrians and bicyclists. However, an occasional vehicle that does not exceed the H10 design vehicle specs … would potentially be able to cross the bridge.”

In response to a follow-up email from Brownman seeking further clarification, Weeks wrote, “With our initial coordination with county staff, the subject of vehicles crossing the proposed pedestrian bridge was discussed. The determination made was that the intent was for emergency vehicles to cross Laurel Road at grade versus utilizing the pedestrian bridge. However, the occasional maintenance vehicle … that is under the H10 loading (20,000 lbs.) would be acceptable. The cage on top of the bridge does not prevent vehicles from crossing,” he added. It just limits the height and width of vehicles, he noted. “Please reference the Legacy Trail pedestrian bridge over US 41 as a physical example of the intent and limitations.”

Weeks also pointed out, “Deviating from [FDOT] specifications could potentially jeopardize the federal funding for the project.”