Road swap proposal wins formal County Commission approval, with letter going to FDOT

Deal expected to be finalized before end of September, with state taking over River Road and county getting roads on Siesta Key

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

Before the end of September, Sarasota County is expected to take ownership of Midnight Pass Road from the intersection of Stickney Point Road to the intersection of Higel Avenue; Siesta Drive west of U.S. 41; parts of Bay Road and Osprey Avenue, which are designated State Road 758 west of Bee Ridge Road; and the segment of Stickney Point Road west of the U.S. 41 intersection.

That will not include the two drawbridges, which are located on Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive, county staff pointed out again on May 22.

In exchange, the State of Florida will take over the segment of River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75.

That was the formal road swap offer the Florida Department of Transportation made to the county, which the County Commission unanimously approved on May 22. It will notify the department in a formal letter.

County commissioners voiced frustrations numerous times over the past couple of years about failing to win state funding for the widening of River Road, which is a major hurricane route for residents of both South County and Charlotte County. Finally, on Sept. 13, 2017, then-County Administrator Tom Harmer announced that staff had begun discussing a proposed road swap that would lead to River Road becoming a state road. If that could be achieved, commissioners agreed, the state would have the authority to make the long-sought improvements.

In more recent months, however, residents who live near the intersection of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 — and a number on Siesta Key — have voiced alarm that if the state no longer had authority over Stickney Point Road, then the likelihood would increase that the proposed Siesta Promenade project would win County Commission approval.

Commissioner Charles Hines said on May 22 that he believes FDOT will have significant say in traffic issues related to Siesta Promenade, which Benderson Development has planned on about 24 acres on the northwest corner of the Stickney Point Road intersection with U.S. 41.

Hines made the motion on May 22 that authorizes county staff to send a formal letter to FDOT, accepting its terms for the road swap. Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it.

“I really believe [there has been] miscommunication going on” in regard to the Siesta Promenade issue, Hines said. FDOT will remain completely responsible for the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection, he stressed. “[FDOT is] still going to have an interest [in what transpires with Siesta Promenade]. I think that needed to be made clear.”

A 2005 aerial map shows the Pine Shores Trailer Park on the site where Benderson Development proposes to build Siesta Promenade. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The focus of the road swap is “a major road that’s been a problem for 20 years for this county,” he added, referring to River Road.

Three people addressed the board about the road swap during the Open to the Public portion of the morning session of the meeting. All opposed it.

One was Sura Kochman, a spokeswoman for the Pine Shores Neighborhood Alliance. Pine Shores Estates is the community that would be immediately adjacent to Siesta Promenade.

Kochman pointed out that in July 2016, FDOT sent a letter to county staff, noting the state’s responsibility “to provide a safe and efficient roadway for our residents” and visitors. FDOT staff members, she continued, “were especially concerned” that the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection was on the department’s list of the top vehicle crash locations in Sarasota County. From 2010 to 2014, Kochman said, FDOT statistics showed a 175% increase in those crashes. “I find it very difficult to believe that the situation has changed for the better,” she told the commissioners.

Then Kochman pointed to May 4 correspondence FDOT sent to county staff and Benderson Development Co., which has proposed the 414 dwelling units, 140,000 square feet of retail/commercial space and a 130-room hotel within Siesta Promenade. County staff deemed the most recent transportation analyses for Siesta Promenade to be sufficient, Kochman said. Yet, FDOT had a long list of concerns yet to be resolved in regard to the increase in traffic it expects the development to generate. Among FDOT’s citations, she continued, is the prediction that vehicles will back up routinely into the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection.

A graphic shows the latest plans for Siesta Promenade, provided to county staff in March. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Kochman also referenced the fact that the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office ticketed drivers during the height of tourist season this year for blocking that intersection; the fine was $166.

“FDOT’s jurisdiction over Stickney Point Road should not be relinquished,” she said, urging the commissioners to recognize the need for “continuity of control” of that road from U.S. 41 west to the Midnight Pass Road intersection on Siesta Key.

Commissioner Alan Maio — who represents Siesta Key and the Stickney Point Road area as part of District 4 — pointed out during the later discussion, “I explicitly asked for the elimination of the leg of Stickney Point Road … from Midnight Pass Road to [U.S.] 41.”

However, Spencer Anderson, interim director of the county’s Public Works Department, emphasized that FDOT refused to accept any counter proposal county staff made regarding the road swap, except for the suggestion that the state maintain control of the drawbridges on Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road.

Maio also noted that he had worked alongside County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to seek the inclusion of improvements — at state expense — to the almost 90-degree curve at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive on north Siesta Key.

“Ultimately, at the end of all those negotiations,” Maio added, “this is the total package, take it or leave it.”

“That’s correct,” Lewis responded. At one point, Lewis said, staff also suggested the state maintain authority over the segment of State Road 758 within the jurisdiction of the City of Sarasota, but FDOT declined to do so. “Other than the bridges, they kept going back to the original proposal.”

County staff will design the improvements to the Higel/Siesta Drive intersection, Anderson said, stressing, “It is a fully constrained roadway. … [The rights of way] for all intents and purposes are already in use.” Still, he added, the goal will be to make the intersection safer.

A graphic explains details about the Higel Avenue/Siesta Drive intersection plans. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The agreement also calls for FDOT to complete the resurfacing of Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way in the 2022 fiscal year; the distance is about 1.6 miles.

Plaudits for FDOT

Chair Nancy Detert pointed out that she and Lewis went to Tallahassee on one occasion to talk face-to-face with the FDOT secretary. When she asked the earliest timeline the River Road improvements could be undertaken if the county kept the road and it moved to the top of FDOT’s priority list, she continued, the answer was 2024. “The longer we drag out the process … it’ll be the same old story about River Road.”

She added, “River Road [improvements] should have been started incrementally at least 25 years ago.” Past members of the County Commission, she continued, “have not been able to raise the money or have the political courage to try to get the job done, and our population has increased radically in the last 25 years.”

“I’m amazed that FDOT would bend over backwards, I felt, to be cooperative,” she said. The Siesta roads would be “very inexpensive to maintain,” she indicated, with the deletion of the drawbridges from the swap. “I’m very happy to support this [agreement].”

The details

A memo provides background on improvements that the county has made to River Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During his May 22 presentation, Anderson explained the swap as follows:

  • Before the end of the current fiscal year — Sept. 30 — the county and FDOT will execute the road transfer and joint project agreements.
  • Sarasota County will update the necessary documentation, along with the design plans, and obtain the outstanding rights of way for the widening of River Road from U.S. 41 to I-75. FDOT and the county each will pay $3.5 million for that work — for a total expected expense of $7 million — beginning in FDOT’s 2019 fiscal year.
  • The county will construct the segment of River Road from U.S. 41 to West Villages Parkway, a distance of about 1.6 miles, at an estimated expense of $24 million from FY21 through FY23.

FDOT will be responsible for any amount above $24 million.

Mobility impact fees for South County and county road impact fees from the City of North Port would cover about $10 million of that expense, Anderson said.

The county plans to borrow $14 million from the State of Florida Infrastructure Bank in the 2021 fiscal year, he continued, which it would pay back with future revenue from South County mobility fees and road impact fees from North Port.

  • FDOT has specified that the northern limit of the county project will be north of the West Villages Parkway.
A graphic provides details about the road swap timeline. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Maio asked why staff and FDOT settled on the northern limit, when he had recommended the southern limit. Anderson replied that that decision was made because of a drainage basin delineated north of the intersection, calling it a “key factor.”

  • FDOT will construct the approximately 4-mile segment of River Road from West Villages Parkway to I-75 at an estimated cost of $41 million; that is planned to begin in the department’s 2024 fiscal year. (Each FDOT fiscal year begins on July 1 and ends on June 30.) That work is scheduled for the 2024-25 fiscal year.

As for River Road from U.S. 41 to State Road 776, Spencer provided this information:

  • The majority of the right of way was acquired in 2008 in an exchange with the West Villages Improvement District.
  • The 2008 agreement provides for a 67.9-acre parcel to be set aside for scrub jay habitat.
  • The engineering design for the project has not begun; it is estimated at $2 million to $3 million.

Anderson also explained that the original plan was to widen the segment of River Road from U.S. 41 to Center Road to four lanes instead of six. However, he said, recent analysis of that section indicated that the savings “were not significant compared to the overall cost.” Therefore, staff will plan on making that stretch six lanes. Then the segment from Center Road to I-75 would be four lanes, he said.