VENICE — “We have just a little minor item to deal with,” Sarasota County Commission Chairman Charles Hines said Tuesday in what was clearly an understatement.

That little minor item was a major step forward in a years-long effort to bring improvements to River Road.

By a unanimous vote, the commissioners approved an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation that will see North River Road from U.S. 41 to Interstate 75 become a state road next year.

In return for taking River Road off the county’s hands, the county will accept responsibility for two state roads in the Siesta Key area.

With funding already committed in its five-year work plan, the state plans to begin improvements to the road in 2021 that will see it widened to six lanes and brought up to modern standards.

“This has been talked about for 25 years, and the key to success was this transfer agreement,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “It’s a very creative and sensible thing.”

Echoing Detert, Commissioner Alan Maio added, “It’s a great idea whoever thought of it. This has been a long time coming.”

Detert and Maio were not far off in their time estimate as commissioners began talking about how to improve River Road for two decades. Former Commissioner Shannon Staub, who served on the board from 1996 to 2010, made River Road a priority during her years of service.

But funding always remained the stumbling block, plus the fact that it was only a county road — even though it served as an evacuation route for people living in Englewood, Boca Grande, the Cape Haze Peninsula, and North Port.

At one time, Staub even broached the idea of making River Road a toll road to pay for its improvements, but the notion never gained traction.

Ironically, with the swap agreement in place, a rumor began circulating in South County that FDOT now planned to make it a toll road, but Spencer Anderson, the county’s public works director shot that down Tuesday. Anderson told commissioners the county had received a commitment from FDOT that they had no plans to turn it into a toll road.

South River Road

With the agreement in place, and county staff continuing to work on other details pertaining to the swap, attention will now start to focus on South River Road, which is still Sarasota County’s responsibility.

Maio said during Tuesday’s discussion that he hoped some conversation could occur during next year’s budget planning on funding at least the design phase for the road.

While the county owns most of the right of way needed to improve South River Road, no design work at an estimated cost between $4-$5 million has been performed. Construction costs for the roughly 7-mile road from U.S. 41 to Winchester Boulevard then south to the Charlotte County Line are estimated in current dollars at $65 million.

Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube who was in attendance to hand out some awards, told commissioners he was committed to finding federal dollars to help the county start the project.

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