Diverging Diamond makes its University Parkway debut – News – Sarasota Herald-Tribune

SARASOTA — It rained Saturday night at I-75 and University Parkway, which meant the sun rose Sunday with dozens of construction workers still moving hundreds of traffic cones.

Lane by lane, they painted the final lines and arrows of a long-anticipated diverging diamond interchange.

Off to one side, a bicyclist stopped to watch the dramatic opening of the $74.5-million construction project.

He wore a bushy beard, mismatched socks and a traffic signal tattoo on his left forearm. He turned out to be Jason Starr, a Sarasota traffic engineer who helped design the diverging diamond, which has worried Lakewood Ranch drivers for two years now.

“I was just curious,” Starr said with a smile. “I wasn’t sure how close I could come in my car, so I took my bike.”

The interchange opened at noon — four hours late, thanks to the rain delays — but Starr had no doubt that drivers would easily navigate the curving crossover lanes that lead east and west.

“Channelization,” he said, smiling again. “You can only go one way.”

Starr was joined on the sidewalk by Marlena Gore, construction manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. She shook her head when describing “gullywashers” of rain on Friday and Saturday night.

“We were dry for six months, but it couldn’t hold off two more days,” she said. “It just makes a mess. We had to sweep, broom and try to blow it off.”

Sunday morning traffic was relatively light, which made Gore feel better about the delay.

“Can you imagine if we did this on a Monday?” she joked. “People would be shooting at us.”

By the numbers

Construction of the interchange began on Aug. 3, 2015. It should be completed in the fall of 2017.

More than 750 construction workers have worked on the project, which included the raising and dismantling of a 280-foot-long temporary bridge. Crews have placed laid more than 95,000 tons of asphalt.

The Sarasota project is the first of its kind in Florida. It is the largest diverging diamond in the nation, with six lanes of eastbound and six lanes of westbound traffic.

Average daily traffic at the interchange is 134,000 vehicles on Interstate 75 and 73,000 on University Parkway.

The design of a diverging diamond strives to eliminate long lines of cars trying to make left-hand turns. It forces several lanes of traffic to ease left before returning to the traditional right side of the road.

First reaction

The first eastbound lanes of traffic crossed beneath the interstate just before noon on Sunday. Westbound traffic soon followed.

“It’s easy — easy access,” said Eddie Codelina, who lives near I-75. “We went right through. One, two, three quick.”

Late in the morning, southbound traffic on I-75 backed all the way up to State Road 70. By 1 p.m., there were no delays.

Helena Anderson, who lives in the Palm Aire Country Club, drove east to Lakewood Ranch. She was cautious both on the road and in her opinion.

“Well … I see potential for great things,” she said, “but I’m a little worried about getting back.”

Anderson can’t wait for all the cones, barrels and construction equipment to disappear from the interchange. She believes in the interchange concept.

“What I’ll really like is turning north on I-75,” she said. “That looks fabulous.”

Joe and Diane Sosnosky, who live in Lakewood Ranch, marveled at their first ride west through the diverging diamond. They watched several drivers veer out of I-75 turning lanes at the last second.

“That was a boo-boo for a lot of people,” Diane said. “But we don’t want to be too critical. It’s going to get better.”

Preparing the public

Starr, the bicycling engineer, works for HDR Engineering in Sarasota. His boss is the engineer of record on the diverging diamond interchange. They’ve been working on the project for years.

He didn’t mind getting up early on Sunday.

“I wanted to watch the inception,” Starr said. “Just hanging out on the side of the road to see what happens.”

When he looked down at the curb, he could see things that began on his computer screen.

“Like the lanes,” he said. “I laid the lanes, you know. I drew that curve.”

Gore, the FDOT construction manager, has worked on the interchange for two years. She’s a Sarasota native who wears a red, white and blue hard hat with an eagle on the front.

A big part of the University Parkway project has been trying to prepare the public for the unconventional lanes. The very name of the interchange design has became synonymous with driver apprehension.

Gore laughed when she said her next project would be the I-75 interchange at State Road 64 in Manatee County.

“It is NOT a diverging diamond,” she said. “That’s capital N-O-T in bold italics — NOT a diverging diamond.”

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