River Road/Siesta roads swap will not be finalized before end of year, county staff says

FDOT has moved up its timeline for River Road improvements to coincide with county work in 2021 fiscal year

(Editor’s note: This article was updated on Dec. 15 to clarify that the county also would control Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive west of U.S. 41.)

A graphic shows the segments of River Road, State Road 72 and State Road 758 that are the focus of the planned road swap with the state. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As late as Oct. 9, Sarasota County staff still was anticipating that a swap with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) involving River Road and roads on Siesta Key would be concluded by the end of this calendar year.

However, in response to a Sarasota News Leader request for an update this week, county staff said that instead of wrapping up the swap prior to Dec. 31, FDOT plans just to submit to the county a draft road transfer agreement.

While the county commissioners may be disappointed about that, FDOT did have a significant proverbial “carrot” to temper the news.

In a Dec. 3 email, county Media Relations Officer Ashley Lusby told the News Leader that FDOT also has informed county staff that it plans to move up its funding allocation for its construction of the River Road improvements from the West Villages Parkway to Interstate 75. Instead of keeping that project in the 2024 fiscal year, as the department had announced earlier this year, FDOT is preparing to undertake the work in the 2021 fiscal year.

Lusby pointed out that the change in the timetable will 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.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis conveyed the news to the commissioners in an email late last week, the News Leaderlearned. He had spoken with L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s District One secretary, who is based in Bartow.

That announcement followed the news that the county had won approval for a $14-million loan from the State Infrastructure Bank (SIB), to enable the county to proceed in FY21 with its part of the River Road work; FDOT likewise had “secured SIB approval,” Lewis noted.

Additionally, in a Nov. 30 email to City and County of Sarasota members of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) board, MPO Executive Director David L. Hutchinson pointed out that the total funding for River Road work from U.S. 41 to I-75 in the department’s work program for FY21 would be $73,863,116.

The county commissioners had reviewed this timeline on May 22 before voting formally to approve the swap. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lewis had informed the commissioners in early October that the City of North Port had committed $6 million toward the county’s expense for its part of the project.

Hutchinson added that the construction had been included along with the previously funded planning and environmental work phase. “The project will be constructed as a Design/Build project using State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) loans,” Hutchinson noted.

In his Nov. 28 email to the commissioners, Lewis wrote of FDOT’s plans, “This is what we have been working for but according to LK it will end up a reality.”

In a Nov. 29 email, Commissioner Christian Ziegler responded, “Love this news.

“As you know, this is a major issue for our folks in south county.”

Ziegler added, “Thank you for the update and please let me know if you come across any opportunity for me to help keep River Road top of mind in Tallahassee/D.C.”

Ziegler also is the GOP committeeman for Sarasota County, and he previously worked on the staff of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key.

Commissioner Charles Hines was even more enthusiastic in his reply to Lewis: “YEA!!! Another check off on my to do list. Thanks and great job.”

On May 22, the commissioners agreed on the facets of the road swap, which would entail their commitment to assume authority over Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive west of U.S. 41, excluding the drawbridges — which the state would continue to control — as well as Higel Avenue and the segment of Midnight Pass Road north of the Stickney Point Road intersection. In exchange, the state would assume authority over River Road. County leaders had proposed that in late 2017 as a means of accelerating the widening and other improvements of River Road that commissioners have sought for decades.

A graphic shows investments made in River Road as of the spring of 2017. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Oct. 9, the commissioners 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 Interstate 75, at a cost of $3.5 million.

A staff memo provided to the board in advance of that meeting pointed out, “County and FDOT staff are in the process of developing terms of a subsequent final proposed agreement for a jurisdictional road transfer … and Project construction funding. This subsequent agreement is planned to be scheduled for Board consideration [late this calendar year].”

A long road

FDOT staff had told county leaders that as long as River Road remained a county road, it would have a lower priority on the department’s work program lists. Only if River Road became a state road, FDOT representatives pointed out, would the department be able to consider speeding up the scheduling of the improvements.

The commissioners welcomed the news of the road swap negotiations when then-County Administrator Tom Harmer announced them. Burgeoning home construction in Venice and North Port, the coming relocation of the Atlanta Braves’ Spring Training operations to a new West Villages facility, and concerns Hurricane Irma underscored about the need for a much better evacuation route for both South County residents and Charlotte County residents were primary factors board members cited in supporting the idea.

An aerial map shows a segment of River Road north of U.S. 41, with multiple residential developments in the area. Image from Google Maps

However, details had to be ironed out, including what specific responsibilities the county and the state would have.

Even as the talks progressed this year, the first sign that the deal might not be concluded before Dec. 31 came in June.

Commissioner Alan Maio, who is a member of the MPO board, told County Administrator Lewis that FDOT representatives at the June 18 MPO meeting were “claiming eight to nine months before documents can be signed on the River Road swap.”

Maio conferred with Chair Nancy Detert and then-Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who also had attended the MPO meeting, as the commission’s other representatives, to ensure their understanding of the comments was the same as his.

“Yeah,” Detert confirmed Maio’s recollection of the timeline.

Subsequently, though, county staff reaffirmed the timeline calling for the conclusion of the swap by the end of this year.