Members of public warn that leaving eastbound exit onto Gulfstream as part of design will lead to more accidents
On Nov. 1, seven city residents implored the Sarasota City Commission to consider eliminating the planned eastbound exit onto Gulfstream Avenue from the roundabout under construction at U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota.
However, after approximately 75 minutes of discussion, four of the five board members agreed to allow the contractor to proceed with the current design. That was the recommendation of Steve Cover, the city’s planning director.
“Let’s get this constructed and see how it works,” Cover said of the roundabout. “It might work just fine.”
When Commissioner Liz Alpert asked whether it would be “that big an obstacle to make the changes” after the work has been finished, City Engineer Nikesh Patel told her that waiting would not make a difference.
Patel had explained that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) would require the city to pay for the design, permitting and construction of the closure of the eastbound exit, plus drainage work that would have to be undertaken in conjunction with that modification. City staff could handle that process later, Patel pointed out, just as it could while the project is underway.
“Makes a lot of sense,” Mayor Hagen Brody said, in regard to allowing the roundabout to be completed on schedule, with the estimated opening of the structure in the fall of 2022. Moreover, he noted, the public had had the opportunity to offer comments during the meetings that FDOT hosted before it finished the project design.
However, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch proposed that the commissioners go ahead and conduct a public meeting in early 2022, to determine the desire of the majority of people in the community. “I would love to hear from all the citizens,” she said.
Therefore, Ahearn-Koch made a motion to call for city staff to organize the meeting, which would cost about $21,000 — including the expense of renderings, Patel told the board.
Ahearn-Koch added that city staff and representatives of FDOT should be present at the session.
However, the motion failed on a 2-3 vote, with only Commissioner Alpert supporting it.
Then Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo made the motion calling for the commission to await the completion of the roundabout before deciding on whether to modify the design. Only Ahearn-Koch voted “No.”
During his presentation on Nov. 1, City Engineer Patel pointed out that FDOT just began the construction of the roundabout in March. Since then, he continued, staff had received residents’ requests for the modification that would close the eastbound exit onto Gulfstream Avenue. The estimate for that work, Patel noted, is about $100,000, and it would take approximately two years.
More than likely, he added, if the City Commission wished to pursue that option, the work would not begin until after the roundabout has been finished.
Another option calls for full access into the roundabout from the west and the east, Camden Mills, an engineer with the city’s Capital Projects Division in its Public Works Department, explained. That modification has been estimated at $500,000, he said, and it also would take about two years.
Decrying the eastbound exit onto Gulfstream
Among the speakers who addressed the board on Nov. 1, Linda Haller Sloan, a retired telecommunications attorney, emphasized the need for greater public safety in regard to the functioning of the roundabout. “Costs now will save lives later,” she said. “The eastbound exit isn’t necessary,” she pointed out, adding that FDOT staff had made that clear. “The eastbound exit would immediately pass through a crosswalk, jeopardizing vulnerable pedestrians and bicyclists.”
Further, she pointed out, “No safety study has been done” to justify having both east- and westbound exits.
Carole Kleinberg voiced her support for the roundabout, noting that she has endured three rear-end collisions in the past at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
However, she continued, “A Gulfstream option will create constant risks. Drivers who are not in the correct lane will need to avoid entering vehicles or will switch lanes as they try to exit, slowing traffic [in the roundabout].”
Alan Kaso told the commissioners that he had reviewed the designs of more than 100 roundabouts. The one at Gulfstream and U.S. 41, he noted, is “very complex.”
Then he showed the board an image of the roundabout as it has been designed, explaining that northbound traffic on U.S. 41 will have three lanes to use to merge into the roundabout. “The traffic moving into the roundabout from the [Ringling Causeway Bridge] has to cross all three lanes of northbound traffic in a very short distance,” to exit onto Gulfstream, he added. “This is an accident waiting to happen … and it’s going to happen.”
Speaking on behalf of the president of The Jewel condominium complex homeowners, Jim Lampl concurred that the exit onto Gulfstream “is going to be a real traffic hazard. … The momentum is for the north/south traffic flow.”
One speaker who tried to offer comments via Zoom was not audible to the commissioners, Mayor Brody noted. Therefore, The Sarasota News Leader contacted her for her statement.
Kafi Benz, president of the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), pointed out the following:
“Historically, fears about roundabouts evaporate when drivers and pedestrians become familiar with them,” Benz wrote. “In fact, surveys show a dramatic and polar reversal of such fears.
“Drivers and pedestrians already negotiate similar conditions safely at the intersections to the north of the roundabout at Tamiami Trail, Gulfstream, and John Ringling,” Benz continued.
“Preventing the direct access for traffic coming from the bridge onto Gulfstream would result in excessive queuing to the north and south and interfere with the safety and efficiency of the entire series of roundabouts designed to eliminate congestion issues related to our street grid.
“The very long design process for this roundabout took the time to address the issues being raised [during the commission meeting] and a compromise was reached by the community,” Benz wrote.
“FDOT accommodates the desires of the city, even against its best engineering advice. That means safety and functionality may be adversely affected. That works against best practices. The reason restoration of the traffic flow was recommended by the design engineers is that a roundabout is a speed control, traffic calming device as well as a facilitation of volume through the continuous flow intersection. Elimination of the traffic flow to and from Gulfstream would encourage aggressive drivers going north on Tamiami Trail to intimidate others into letting them speed through the intersection. That would interfere in the safe traffic flow through the intersection and the low speed, continuous flow that the intersection was designed to facilitate. That speeding would endanger pedestrians along the series of roundabouts as well. The slip lane reduces that loss of safety by half.”
Benz concluded her statement by noting that the design of the roundabout “is the decision the community worked out through long and difficult negotiations.”
Debating safety and timeline
During the Nov. 1 board discussion, in response to a question from Vice Mayor Arroyo, City Engineer Patel said, “From a walkability standpoint, the three-legged [roundabout] would be safer,” as it would have fewer “conflict points.” He was referring to areas where drivers have to be aware of pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the roundabout.
When Arroyo asked about the greatest benefits of having extra access points, Patel explained that, with the expectation that the city’s population will continue to grow, drivers would have more options for different routes, so they could get where they want to go.
Patel further noted that FDOT staff has said that “the roundabout would be more efficient” with both east- and westbound access points, because the more traffic that flows into the roundabout, the slower the vehicles move. That acts as a traffic calming measure, Patel pointed out.
In response to a question from Commissioner Kyle Scott Battie, Patel said that FDOT’s traffic model had shown that, with eastbound and westbound accesses, the roundabout would be 15% more efficient.
When Mayor Brody asked about the potential for problems for drivers if the eastbound exit onto Gulfstream were closed after the roundabout was completed, Patel told him, “It would be disruptive to some extent.”
Further, Patel said, the fastest FDOT staff has indicated that the work could be completed would be 18 months.
Since FDOT already had indicated that it would take two years, Brody replied, it likely would take two years, based on his past experience with FDOT projects.
Advocating for more public involvement
Following the public remarks, Commissioner Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues that she had talked with an FDOT representative who had assured her that closing off the eastbound exit onto Gulfstream would not delay the construction of the roundabout, and the expense would not be that high.
If the commissioners agreed with scheduling a new public meeting on the issue, she asked City Engineer Patel whether he would be able to get “some hard details and costs” about the closure of the eastern exit.
Patel told her he could do that. He also suggested that the meeting be held in January or February.
When Ahearn-Koch asked about holding it in December, City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that the commissioners traditionally have opposed scheduling extra meetings that month because of the holidays. He also noted that the commissioners have been adamant about including seasonal residents in discussions about community issues, and such members of the public are more likely to be back in town early in 2022.
Therefore, Brown said, he “would recommend strongly” that if the board members wished staff to hold the meeting, they allow it to be conducted in January or February.
Commissioner Alpert voiced her willingness to authorize staff to conduct another public meeting on the project. Nonetheless, she said, “It’s concerning to me to cut this leg of [the roundabout] off,” referring to the east exit onto Gulfstream Avenue.
Thus, after seconding Ahearn-Koch’s motion, Alpert voted with the majority on Vice Mayor Arroyo’s subsequent motion to let the project proceed as designed and then make an assessment of any issues after the roundabout has been open.