Drivers worry about UTC mall's traffic impact

Sarasota, Florida -- A new mall and new housing developments are signs the economy is rebounding, but the growth comes with a price for the area of Lakewood Ranch just off I-75 in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The cost: traffic and lots of it.

The Mall at University Town Center, set to open Oct. 16, will feature 880,000 square feet of shopping and dining with a more than 100 stores.

"We'll be 90% leased when we open, and half of those new to the market. We're very excited about that," says Octavio Ortiz, general manager of The Mall at University Town Center.

Exciting for shoppers, but getting there?

"I think it's getting to be a mess that mall will really be a problem. Coming to this [mall] from the highway is going to be a complete nightmare," says John Ramdeen who works in the area.

"They going to have to do something before that mall is done," says motorist Alexis Weedo.

According to FDOT, 35,000 cars travel University Parkway both ways each day and 13-17,000 drivers use the East West ramp off I-75.

"We are starting to see the economy rebound," says Dave Hutchinson, the planning manager for the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

He points to the high-volume of stores to the west and the fast-growing master-planned community of Lakewood Ranch to the east that's preparing to expand south and build 5,100 home in Sarasota County.

"More projects are needed to anticipate the traffic than we anticipated being able to build the congestion is likely to increase as the build out occurs," says Hutchinson.

10 News asked why was the area was not better prepared for this growth and traffic that comes with it -- it seems like we are playing catch up.

"To a certain extent yes," says Hutchinson. "But in a way, some of these projects that have been on the books for years and years were planned."

A lack of funding in part, says Hutchinson, delayed the projects. Plus, he says it seems the area's growth was underestimated. FDOT projected 140,000 trips along I-75 and the University Parkway exit each day, 10,000 fewer than today's actual number of 150,000 trips daily.

Hutchinson says long-term solutions include: FDOT building a $60 million diverging diamond ramp at the University Parkway I-75 exit; Manatee and Sarasota counties improving arterial roads; and developers expanding Lakewood Ranch Boulevard South and Sarasota County is considering an overpass crossing over I-75 between University Parkway and Fruitville Road.

Drivers will soon see a change to the traffic signals. Hutchinson says FDOT will add a computerized system that uses sensors to change the lights based on traffic flow. The Adaptive Lighting Signal System would run from the airport to I-75.

Sarasota County is also adding bus service. SCAT will run from the airport to Lakewood Ranch.

Click here for photos from inside the mall.

Click here for the Sneak Peek Charity Gala, which will be held the night before the mall's official grand opening:

Click here for a fact sheet about the mall.


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