›› For 15 years, Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson has served on the region’s transportation boards. Currently she chairs the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) and is on the board of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA), which covers seven counties, including Sarasota and Manatee.
What’s the most pressing issue facing transportation? Money, money and money. There’s insufficient funding, and it’s getting worse every year. Our roads are built with a combination of federal, state and local funds, and we have projects that we’ve needed for
The biggest problem in this area is that when the state started running out of money it declared priority routes. In the large urban areas that are very developed and congested, there are a number of projects that are in this priority classification. In Sarasota, all we have is I-75 and University Parkway. Manatee’s got I-75 and S.R. 70, and we share the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
What is the top priority in Sarasota?
Venice Bypass. It’s four lanes and extremely busy, and we have just recently been allocated $32 million to purchase right of way at the Venice Avenue and U.S. 41 intersection. Widening of the Venice Bypass has been on the list since 1995. I have no idea when they’ll break ground; my guess is at least four more years.
Have federal stimulus dollars helped?
The stimulus money is not exactly a shower from heaven. We were allocated $6 million to $7 million for each county from the feds to the state. The idea is to produce jobs, so projects have to be shovel-ready. But the federal restrictions are so strict it’s turned into repaving projects. Even though we have state permits, we can’t use the stimulus money for most of our road projects. The county took its share and put it into an agreement with Manatee County to repave University Parkway.
Is there anything exciting happening?
We have a huge lake, originally a borrow pit—Nathan Benderson Park off Cattlemen Road—and we found out that with a small adjustment we can turn this park into a facility that would meet international qualifications for rowing regattas. We need transportation to it, and fortunately we have a road project that’s been on the books forever to build out North Cattlemen. Benderson Development will build a hotel and at least a portion of its planned [shopping center] development based on getting the road built.
The rowing facility is a huge boon for both counties. A regatta there last spring brought in thousands of people, and the hotels were packed. That road also links across University Parkway to a road in Manatee.
Indirectly, we’re getting stimulus money to make it happen, over $15 million. It’s a win for tourism, a win for transportation because it’s a piece of the grid system, a win for jobs and a win to get a new hotel. We all pulled together on this.
Also, TBARTA has drawn up a master plan through 2035 that plans to have a number of light rail routes in Pinellas and Hillsborough and, in the long run, bring it down to Manatee, through Sarasota and maybe as far south as downtown Sarasota. There’s a rail corridor in Sarasota that’s part of that plan. We have an application for a multimillion-dollar grant to buy this corridor and make it a rapid transit bus route to begin with, running from the Sarasota Bradenton Airport to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and as far south as Bee Ridge Road.
Will people really leave their cars, especially our elderly population? Do we believe older people will be driving forever? First of all, you’ve got to believe that any new system will get you there faster, comfortably and safely. Rapid transit is probably safer than the car, and it’s certainly safer than someone whose vision is going. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I believe strongly in incremental changes. ■