Siesta Key Association members hear update on several island projects, including plans for temporary ‘mini roundabout’ at Ocean Boulevard/Higel intersection
During a show of hands at the April 7 meeting of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), not one person indicated support for the planned roundabout at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road.
Nonetheless, Spencer Anderson, the Sarasota County engineer and director of the Public Works Department, explained that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) schedule still calls for construction of the traffic measure starting in the summer of 2023.
As agreed upon during a formal “road swap” a couple of years ago, involving FDOT’s taking over authority of River Road in South County and the county’s assuming control of roads on Siesta Key, county staff is responsible for the design of that roundabout. The final version of the design for the Siesta Key roundabout is expected to be complete in the fall, Anderson told the SKA members gathered on April 7 at St. Boniface Episcopal Church on the Key.
FDOT’s Five Year Work Program — updated as of Feb. 16 — says the agency has allocated $2,925,252 to the construction of the island roundabout.
SKA Director Robert Luckner reminded members that the County Commission approved the project, even though a survey of island residents that county staff undertook showed the majority of residents oppose the idea.
“What about another vote?” a member suggested. “This is a boondoggle,” the man said of the plans.
A second SKA member pointed out that while Europeans have learned to drive through roundabouts, because of the vast number of those structures that have been in place for years, Americans usually do not like them. “They’re not the end-all and be-all, sir,” the man told Anderson.
“We have older folks that live here,” the man continued, noting that he had lived on the island since 1983. They were not trained to drive roundabouts, he added. “So you have an ignorant population … You will see plenty of accidents.”
“Roundabouts are polarizing,” Anderson replied. Nonetheless, more than 20 of them have been constructed in the county, he added, including several in downtown Sarasota. “Let’s get it done and see how it works,” Anderson said of the Siesta Key project.
As of this point, Anderson explained, the design — which is at the 30% mark — calls for pedestrian crosswalks to be outside the roundabout itself. However, he added, no determination has been made about the type of signals pedestrians will use to alert traffic to stop at those crosswalks.
The two primary options, Anderson indicated are a HAWK signal, which is being used at crossings of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail, and a Rapid Rectangular Flashing Beacon (RRFB) system that FDOT has installed in many areas, including parts of Siesta.
SKA leaders’ primary concern has been that pedestrians and bicyclists will be safe at the intersection after the roundabout has been completed, President Catherine Luckner pointed out.
As he has during past presentations about the plans, Anderson stressed on April 7, “Points of conflict are significantly reduced with a roundabout.”
Moreover, he said, the way the structures function significantly reduces the odds of fatal or severe crashes.
“The crashes that do happen,” he added, generally are sideswipes. “They’re not head-on [collisions].”
Yet another man pointed out to Anderson, “Siesta Key has many, many people from rural areas” who never have had the experience of driving through a roundabout. “Would it behoove you to put up signs saying that [drivers] in the roundabout have the right of way?” the man asked.
More worries and assertions
One woman asked why the decision was made to proceed with the roundabout plans. With the existing traffic signal and crosswalks, she told Anderson, “We have a real safe way to get to the beach.”
The Siesta Beach Park is on the west side of the intersection, adjacent to the rebuilt Fire Station 13, which was completed last year.
“It’ll be completely safe and protected,” Anderson told her, referring to the new crosswalks with whichever control system county staff decides will work best.
One significant change in the design since he discussed the project with SKA members last year, Anderson noted, is the inclusion of a left-turn lane for southbound vehicles whose drivers want to head toward the northern end of the Key. Those drivers will be able to enter that lane and follow it through the roundabout to head north on Midnight Pass Road, he explained.
The design also will accommodate the fire trucks from Fire Station 13, he said, as well as tractor-trailer rigs.
Further, Anderson noted, 10-foot sidewalks will be constructed at all the approaches; those will be double the width of the existing sidewalks.
A big advantage of roundabouts, Anderson pointed out, is that if the power is out, a roundabout still functions. After Hurricane Irma swept by the county in September 2017, he noted, power outages occurred at numerous intersections, leading to confusion among drivers about who should have the right of way.
Moreover, he said, a roundabout “has a much better [traffic] volume movement.”
Another SKA member told him, “We don’t have a traffic back-up” at the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection.
“If there is congestion,” Anderson replied, “this thing works much better.” Unlike traffic in a signalized intersection, he added, vehicles do not have to stop and start. Therefore, he continued, a roundabout also reduces the level of noise associated with such vehicle movements.
Another man in the audience suggested that the money set aside for the roundabout could have been spent elsewhere.
Anderson agreed that that was true. Nonetheless, Anderson said, “This is the better alternative from the transportation technical analysis …” He did acknowledge of roundabouts, “Some people like ’em; some people don’t like ’em.”
SKA President Luckner then explained that a number of SKA members had written the board of directors, thinking that their aversion to the proposal could halt the plans. That is not going to happen, she said.
Still, Luckner invited all SKA members to send comments and further questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The board members would compile them and then forward them to Anderson, with the hope that they would be of assistance to county staff as it continues work on the design, she said.
SKA member Michael Holderness pointed out that the design appears to eliminate one of the entrances to his office at the intersection.
Anderson stressed that the design members were seeing that evening was preliminary. Staff would work with Holderness on the driveway issue, Anderson promised.
One member voiced worries about residents of condominium complexes at the intersection being able to get out onto the road, with the roundabout in place, especially in the afternoons, when most people are leaving the beach park. Typically, she said, they rely on the stoplight halting traffic, so they can proceed out of the complexes.
Other projects in the works
Following his remarks about the roundabout, Anderson turned to other upcoming projects on the island.
Among those, he noted that county Public Works Department staff has decided on the installation of a “mini roundabout” at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Higel Avenue, because of the potential for accidents there.
“It’s not a permanent feature,” he explained of the project that he said staff plans to start later this month or in May.
The structure could be installed for “a very low cost,” Anderson noted. It would be attached to the ground; therefore, if it did not improve the traffic situation, Anderson said, it could be removed.
“It’s a really tough spot,” he pointed out in describing the intersection.
Drivers on Higel who are headed northbound do not have to stop; those on Ocean Boulevard who are headed northbound must stop and look out for drivers coming up from the southern portion of Higel.
“We’re trying to be innovative to a certain extent,” Anderson explained. “This is a very small area. [The mini roundabout] should be a good solution.”
One SKA member noted a problem for drivers unfamiliar with the island, who are bound for the mainland. When they approach the Ocean Boulevard/Higel intersection from the south, he pointed out, they see the sign that says vehicles northbound on Higel do not stop. Yet, the person added, those drivers do not understand the sign because they do not realize that Higel continues south of the Ocean Boulevard intersection in the first place.
Anderson further noted that staff has installed what are known as “RPMs” on the Ocean Boulevard curve that is near the Gleason Avenue intersection. That has been the site of numerous accidents through the years.
The RPMs light up at night, he pointed out. “Hopefully, that is improving the curve.”
The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) explains, “Light Emitting Diode (LED) Raised Pavement Markers (RPM) function similarly to standard reflective pavement markers, but have small LEDs located inside of them” instead of — or in addition to — retroflective components. “[They] have built in sensors that can automatically turn on the LEDs when ambient light drops below a preset level or can be wired to operate as an active treatment in conjunction with vehicle detection.”
Yet another project entails the installation of “speed cushions” just north of Siesta Village, Anderson told the SKA members. “They’re low profile,” he said. They are spaced so that they do not affect emergency vehicles, such as EMS units or fire trucks, whose wheelbases are wider than those of average vehicles.
The goal is to slow down drivers entering the Village.
(A Traffic Engineering Division staff presentation to the county’s Traffic Advisory Council on March 14 acknowledged that the average speed of vehicles heading into the Village from the north is 31 mph, even though the speed limit is 20 mph.)
The speed cushions would be installed soon, Anderson told the SKA members.
In regard to the long-planned improvements at the nearly 90-degree curve where Siesta Drive intersects Higel Avenue on northern Siesta Key: Staff is awaiting some materials before starting that undertaking, Anderson pointed out. Drainage improvements will be part of that initiative, he said.
Finally, Anderson noted FDOT’s plans to resurface Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way — which is one entrance to the Siesta Isles neighborhood. The expense of that project is $3,560,222, FDOT’s Five Year Work Program says.
The length of the affected roadway is 1.635 miles, FDOT adds.
During that initiative, Anderson pointed out, FDOT will replace about one-third of the sidewalks.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Adam Rose, communications specialist for FDOT’s District One, wrote in an April 12 email that the bids for the resurfacing project were received on March 30. No contract has yet to be awarded, he added.
After FDOT has a contract in place, Rose continued, the company will have 120 days to acquire materials for the undertaking and then 250 days to complete it.
FDOT staff anticipates the construction to begin in the “September time frame,” he wrote.