By Rachel Brown Hackney
In early September 2017, then-Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer broached what seemed a novel idea to achieve the long-desired widening and other improvements involving River Road.
Staff had been talking with the District One representatives of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), he told the County Commission, about a potential swap of River Road to the state in exchange for the county’s taking over authority for roads on Siesta Key west of U.S. 41.
Slightly more than two years later, on Oct. 8, county commissioners credited the unknown originator of the idea as they prepared to approve the formal resolution making the road swap a fait accompli.
Commissioner Nancy Detert, who made the motion, pointed out that she had worked in the Florida Legislature to try to assist the county with funding for River Road. The problem, she continued, was the fact that “it was a county road.” The road swap, she continued, “was the key to success … so the state would own a road that everybody thought they owned anyway.”
“I can’t put my finger on who came up with [the proposal],” Detert added.
Commissioner Alan Maio seconded her motion, noting, “It was a great idea, whoever thought it up.”
He said he expected the idea arose during a meeting of county and FDOT staff members.
“That was a huge breakthrough, the state finally becoming a partner on the project and entering into negotiations,” County Engineer and Public Works Director Spencer Anderson told the board members.
“This project is a massive undertaking,” Anderson said of the River Road improvements, which will cost close to $74 million.
Not only is Sarasota County affected, he added, but also Charlotte and Lee counties, as River Road is a hurricane evacuation route for residents of all three counties. Boca Grande, he noted, is split between Lee and Charlotte counties, similar to Longboat Key’s division between Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Using slides he also presented to the commission on Oct. 2, when the County Commission met with the North Port city commissioners, Anderson talked about the primary details of the swap and the anticipated timeline.
In April 2020, Anderson said, FDOT will assume jurisdictional responsibility of North River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75.
In September 2020, the county will take over the affected portions of Stickney Point Road, Midnight Pass Road, Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive.
Additionally, he pointed out last week, the county will take over the portion of State Road 758 west of the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and U.S. 41, which will include Bay Road and part of Osprey Avenue in the city of Sarasota.
“I do appreciate your patience and consideration,” Anderson told the commissioners, when county staff takes over the maintenance for Stickney Point Road and State Road 758. “It is a constrained facility. There is only so much we can do as a county to make changes out there.”
Anderson added, “I would imagine the state has said ‘No’ in the past to a lot of people. I do expect there to be a lot of requests, and we’ll manage those appropriately. That will be a new challenge to us in Public Works.”
Among the facets of the swap — as he noted last week — is the state’s payment of $359,138 for improvements to the almost 90-degree curve where Higel Avenue intersects with Siesta Drive on north Siesta Key. Constructing those measures, designed to promote safety, will be a county project, Anderson said.
Graphics provided to the commission in advance of the Oct. 8 meeting show plans for replacement of the existing signage and guardrails with 108 feet of new guardrails on both the north and south approaches to the curve.
Additionally, a 225-foot traffic separator will be installed through the curve, and sod will replace 50 square yards of asphalt in the northwest quadrant of the intersection. The latter feature essentially will help smooth out the curve, based on the graphic’s details.
Anderson also noted that FDOT will complete the resurfacing of Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way — at the entrance to Siesta Isles — in the 2022 fiscal year, “or potentially earlier, if they can move that up.” In conjunction with that work, what he characterized as a “small drainage project” will be undertaken from Little Pond Road to Somerset Drive. That location is a short distance south of the Higel/Siesta Drive curve.
Finally, Anderson reminded the commissioners that the county will become responsible for the maintenance of the two fixed bridges included in the Siesta segments, while the state will continue to maintain the two drawbridges.
To the south
As for River Road: Right of way acquisition is underway, Anderson pointed out, for the North River Road work, which will encompass widening of the road to six lanes from U.S. 41 to Center Road and to four lanes from Center Road to I-75.
After the formal roads transfer occurs next spring, Anderson continued, the state’s next step will be putting out the River Road project for bids by early 2020.
Originally, he said, plans called for work on the section from U.S. 41 to the West Villages Parkway to begin in the 2021 fiscal year; then, the improvements would start from the West Villages Parkway to I-75 in 2024. However, FDOT decided to pursue a design/build initiative for the entire North River Road project, with the county paying $750,000 for an update of some facets of that.
Altogether, Anderson said, the county will pay $24,750,000 for the North River Road work, with construction set to begin in the 2021 fiscal year. “That is a very fast track,” he emphasized.