FDOT communications specialist Robin Stublen shows Gov. Rick Scott the "diverging diamond" interchange at I-75 and University Parkway near the Sarasota-Manatee county line.
The need for speed: Fast-tracking an interstate interchange
A fast-tracked interchange project shows what happens when politics and planning intersect.
On Oct. 9, 2014, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the state would allocate $83 million to rebuild a chronically congested interchange at I-75 and University Parkway near the Sarasota-Manatee county line.
The project — no doubt welcomed by drivers in the area — is an unconventional one. The rebuilt I-75 and University Parkway junction will be Florida’s first “diverging diamond interchange,” a design that will require all drivers traveling on University to briefly switch to the left side of the road while crossing the interstate.
But what may be most unusual about the project is how quickly it was advanced. At the time of Scott’s announcement, the Florida Department of Transportation, which is required by law to budget in five-year cycles, had set aside just $780,000 for preliminary engineering work on the project. Now, however, not only had the Scott administration found $80 million for the project, but it also announced that construction would be finished by the fall of 2017 — just in time for the start of the 2017 World Rowing Championships, which will be staged a little over a mile from the interchange at Nathan Benderson Park.
What’s more, when FDOT decides to add or advance projects within its five-year work program, it is required to obtain the approval of a handful of key legislators. Records show FDOT didn’t request permission until two weeks after Scott announced the project. (FDOT notes that the press release that accompanied the governor’s announcement made clear that the acceleration of the interchange was contingent upon the Legislature’s approval.)
The announcement caught a number of lawmakers by surprise — among them, Rep. Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes), the appropriations chairman who will become Speaker of the House after next year’s election. And it has prompted a push from Corcoran to impose new controls on FDOT’s ability to add, advance or delay projects outside of its usual five-year cycle.
Few would dispute that the intersection of I-75 and University Parkway is in need of improvement. “My office is 500 meters from the interchange, and if I leave at 5 o’clock, to go 500 meters will take me 15 or 20 minutes, just to get on to the interstate,” says state Rep. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota).
While local and state officials had been discussing possible improvements for years, they could never agree on a plan. FDOT wanted to use the diverging diamond concept, in part because it could be built within the existing right of way. Some local government leaders worried that the new concept would confuse drivers. About the only thing that seemed certain was that construction would wait until after the 2017 rowing championships, to avoid disrupting an event expected to draw 40,000 visitors.
Some of the region’s key business leaders did not want to wait that long. Among them were executives with Benderson Development, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and Neal Communities. Benderson has developed numerous projects in the area, including an 860,000-sq.-ft. mall on the western side of the I-75/University interchange that opened last fall — one of only two new enclosed malls to open in the U.S. last year. The company is also the primary corporate supporter of Nathan Benderson Park, the publicly subsidized rowing facility that will host the world championships.
Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is the master developer behind Lakewood Ranch, the 8,500-acre community on the eastern side of the interchange. Neal Communities, run by former state Sen. Pat Neal, builds homes from Tampa to Naples, including four communities in Lakewood Ranch.
Another supporter: Carlos Beruff, a trusted adviser to Scott and the founder of Medallion Home, another home builder active in the area.
All are significant Republican fundraisers. Randy Benderson, president of Benderson Development, donated $200,000 to Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political committee during the 2014 election cycle. Neal Communities and a related company gave $85,000, and Beruff gave $50,000. Schroder-Manatee Ranch, meanwhile, is owned by the family of Richard Uihlein, a top Republican Party donor.
In February 2014, a local delegation that included executives from Benderson Development and Schroder-Manatee Ranch, representatives from Sarasota and Manatee counties and Steube traveled to Tallahassee for a meeting with then-FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad, who promised to find the money and speed up the project. In exchange, the locals agreed to support the diverging diamond concept and find the money to pay for improvements on local roads around the interchange.
FDOT says the extra money for the interchange came from two sources. In September 2014, the agency learned that it would get about $90 million from the federal government that had been redistributed from states that hadn’t spent it. FDOT leaders decided to plow about half of that windfall into the interchange (using the rest to pay down projects, which is how the agency typically uses federal redistribution funds). The agency says the remainder of the money came via savings on two other I-75 projects in southwest Florida where the bids came in lower than expected.
Records show just how swiftly FDOT moved. Agency staffers considered waiting to add the project to its work program through the usual process, in which the plan is built during the fall and then submitted to the Legislature for approval in the spring. But that idea was rejected because doing so would have delayed the start of construction 60 days.
Construction began this summer. FDOT in July awarded a contract for the project to Prince Contracting, which bid $74.5 million, or about $10 million less than budgeted. The project is supposed to be finished by Sept. 15, 2017 — one week before the World Rowing Championships.
The governor demurred when asked about his role in ensuring the project got done. “This is really driven by the FDOT budget,” he told reporters. “Jim Boxold (current FDOT secretary) and his predecessor are very focused on traveling around the state and finding the projects that we can get done — and get done on time and get done on budget (in areas) where we’re seeing job growth.” Neal, the founder of Neal Communities and former state senator, likened the campaign to accelerate the interchange to other communities’ efforts to rally around major transportation projects, much the way Orlando-area business leaders lobbied the state for money for the SunRail commuter train.
Neal, the founder of Neal Com- munities and former state senator, likened the campaign to accelerate the interchange to other communities’ efforts to rally around major transportation projects, much the way Orlando-area business leaders lobbied the state for money for the SunRail commuter train. Neal, who says he spoke to Scott about the importance of the project, praised the state’s efforts to get it done. “What we saw was a sign that, When there’s gridlock, the state can be responsive,” he says.
Where Neal sees a sign of responsiveness, some lawmakers see favoritism.
“What’s really happening is powerful people are going to DOT when they know there is extra money available and saying, ‘I want you to do this road here,’ ” Corcoran says. “And what we are saying is, ‘Listen, the Legislature has the power of the purse. They are the ones who are accountable to the taxpayers. If you are going to deviate from this lengthy process, then something has to be put in place to protect taxpayers.”
Corcoran and the House have drafted language that would force FDOT, when it wants to add or accelerate projects above a certain amount, to win approval from the Legislative Budget Commission, currently co-chaired by Corcoran.
Some FDOT supporters dislike the idea, though. They note that the LBC often meets sporadically, and that waiting for approval can delay important projects. Leaders at Enterprise Florida, the economic development agency that must also win LBC approval before they can award incentive packages, have complained about the system for years.
Prasad, who stepped down as FDOT secretary at the end of 2014 and now works for transportation contractor HNTB, said there is often tension between his former agency and the Legislature because some legislators simply do not understand the complex nature of transportation planning and budgeting and, as a result, often make incorrect assumptions about the agency’s motives.
“DOT’s work program is a very complex process. I can tell you, with previous Speakers and appropriations chairs, you may never get more than 30 minutes of really sitting down and understanding the whole process,” Prasad says. “We’ve done that with staff … but legislators, they’ve got so many things going on. So sometimes they draw lots of conclusions.”