Commissioner Nancy Detert says she believes state financial assistance would facilitate faster timeline for improvements than a potential road swap with FDOT
State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, agreed with former State Sen. and now County Commissioner Nancy Detert this week on how best to speed up the improvements the county has planned for River Road: obtain money from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s Florida Job Growth Fund instead of pursuing a road swap with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) so the state could take over control of River Road.
To that end, Rob Lewis, the county’s director of community and intergovernmental relations, told the full County Commission on Dec. 12 that, with Steube’s help, he would continue to advocate for the $10 million the county applied for this summer from that Job Growth Fund.
When Detert responded that that sounded like a faster means of getting the work done on River Road, Steube replied, “I would agree.”
Former Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer had reported a couple of months ago that county staff has been in talks with representatives of FDOT about that department accepting River Road as a state road in exchange for the county’s accepting roads on Siesta Key as county routes, including Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue and Stickney Point Road.
The urgent need for the River Road improvements arose again as Lewis made a Dec. 12 presentation to the County Commission regarding its priorities for federal legislation in 2018. River Road was at the top of the list the board approved on a unanimous vote.
The document Lewis provided to the commissioners pointed out that Phase I involves reconstructing 3 miles of the two-lane undivided River Road into a six-lane divided arterial roadway that would include bike lanes, pedestrian walkways and “transit accessibility features.”
The county is requesting federal funds through a variety of programs, including TIGER, the document noted. The U.S. Department of Transportation website explains that on Sept. 7, the department announced “the opportunity for state and local stakeholders to apply for $500 million in discretionary grant funding through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program.”
“The TIGER grant program is a highly competitive program whose winners will be awarded with the funding they need to rebuild the infrastructure of their communities,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao in the website notice.
The U.S. Transportation Department website explains that the 2017 TIGER program “will give special consideration to projects which emphasize improved access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation for communities in rural areas, such as projects that improve infrastructure condition, address public health and safety, promote regional connectivity, or facilitate economic growth or competitiveness.”
During his Dec. 12 remarks to the County Commission, Steube said that if the road swap were to occur, he understood it would be “in the next year.”
In that event, he continued, the state would pay the estimated $43-million cost for the first phase of work on River Road, which would be from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75. “They wanted to push that off till 2021,” Steube said of FDOT representatives, “and I told them that was unacceptable. The [state Senate] Appropriations [Committee] chairman told DOT that that was unacceptable. We had a meeting in Tallahassee to discuss that specifically, and we’ve pushed that [timeline] up.”
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Steube added that he understood from county staff that it would take at least a year to complete the acquisition of all the necessary right of way for that first phase. Therefore, he said, “we’ll try to get [that project] started in 2019 …”
The segment between U.S. 41 and I-75 “is probably the most crucial part of that road,” Steube told the board.
After that first phase has been completed, he continued, then FDOT would start on the second phase, which would extend to Charlotte County.
“That sounds to me like it’s years in the making, if we’re going to have to re-designate roads,” Detert responded. Using the money the state has set aside for economic development “would probably be a shortcut, rather than swapping roads,” she said.
To his knowledge, Lewis told the board, Gov. Rick Scott’s office has yet to release a list of projects it considers high priorities for the grant money.
The county has special circumstances that demand a faster timeline for the River Road improvements, Detert pointed out. Because the road is a hurricane evacuation route, she said, “That would have been a crisis, if [Irma had been] a Category 5 [storm].”
Furthermore, Detert noted, River Road will be the primary access point to the Atlanta Braves Spring Training complex in the West Villages near North Port, which is set to open in 2019. “We’re about to have tens of thousands of people on River Road going to a baseball game or going to a new subdivision.”
“I would be happy to work on that,” Steube said of gaining state support for the Florida Job Growth Fund grant.
Just this week, Steube added, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Palm City, had talked of his support for putting money in the 2018 state budget for economic development.
The commissioners thanked Steube for his assistance.