During Siesta Promenade public hearing, Hines engages in discussion with staff about measures to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety
As he prepares to take on the role of chair in 2019, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines has signaled his intention to put the focus on improvements to the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
During the day-long, Dec. 12 public hearing on the Siesta Promenade mixed-use project — which is planned for the northwest quadrant of that intersection — Hines at one point said to Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development, “If you don’t build anything, the evidence is absolutely clear: That intersection is a disaster.”
Hines added, “It truly is a public safety problem,” especially because of the fact that the Stickney Point Road drawbridge can open as often as twice an hour and the four lanes on Stickney Point Road drop to two lanes on Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key.
On Dec. 13, the day after the commissioners approved Siesta Promenade on split votes, Hines sent an email to Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division; County Administrator Jonathan Lewis; and Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department.
“Considering the results of yesterday’s hearing and the discussion in regards to [U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road],” he wrote, “I really believe it would be worthwhile if we have a serious discussion in regards to our strategy and plans in regards to this congested area. Much like we did, with great success, with River Road and the diverging diamond, if we all believe and know that this is an area that’s only going to get worse over the next few years, we need to have a real strategy and plan to address it.”
Hines was referring to county staff’s year-long negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to transfer county authority over River Road to the state in exchange for the county’s assuming control of roads on Siesta Key. Under state administration, River Road will have a higher priority for widening and other improvements that the county has sought for decades as a state road, FDOT staff has explained.
As for the Diverging Diamond: Hines mentioned that major FDOT traffic project during the Siesta Promenade hearing, noting that Benderson Development had worked with the county to push for the construction to decrease congestion at Interstate 75’s interchange with University Parkway.
Hines continued in the Dec. 13 email, “It is undisputed that there is truly a public safety issue with getting on and off [Siesta] Key and the backing up and blocking of the US 41 intersection.” He added that, the previous day, he and Commissioner Alan Maio “mentioned a few options … regarding the bridge and the intersection. To my knowledge a fly-over or underpass haven’t been used in Sarasota County at this type of intersection for vehicles,” he added. “[H]owever they have been in other areas to address intersections such as this one.”
Hines acknowledged, “Many feel that those types of Traffic Solutions are aesthetically unpleasing …” Nonetheless, he pointed out, “I have for a very long time felt this is one of the ugliest intersections in our community and is unsafe and nearly impossible to use as a pedestrian.”
Hines continued, “We obviously need the help of FDOT, the [Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization], the private sector in and around this intersection and the residents of and those who frequent Siesta Key beach and [island] businesses to help design a more aesthetically pleasing, safe and walkable/bikeable intersection. If downtown Baltimore and Times Square can [redesign] their major downtown intersections,” he added, “I believe we can do the same.”
Hines then noted that staff already has planned a commission workshop in 2019 — tentatively in January, County Administrator Lewis said — to discuss further ideas about alleviating traffic congestion on Siesta Key. Among options the board has considered in the past has been implementing a paid parking system at the public beach. “[M]y main idea for potentially supporting that option is to use those funds to directly benefit the Siesta Key Beach area and to have an identifiable long-term funding source for the Siesta Key trolley and to expand its services off the key,” he wrote.
The Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley, which is free, began circulating between Turtle Beach and Siesta Village in late March 2017. Commissioner Maio, who represents Siesta as part of his District 4 territory, has touted its success. He has pointed out that if a person figures that every two riders on the trolley represent one car not on the island’s roads, then the Breeze accounted for about 125,000 fewer vehicles on Siesta last year.
Hines concluded his Dec. 13 email, “The changes in our building codes that are encouraging mixed-use and urban redevelopment may cause the [owners of property at the] other quadrants at this intersection [of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road] to rethink their plans. As we are trying to encourage walkability in our urban areas retrofitting this intersection to allow for that may be a plan that our entire Community can support.”
During the Siesta Promenade public hearing, Hines asked a number of questions of Wiggins of Transportation Planning. “Talk to me a little bit about the idea,” he said, that allowing increased density in a Critical Area Plan (CAP) project, such as Siesta Promenade, implies that the community will promote walkability.
“If I’m staying in this hotel [Benderson Development plans in Siesta Promenade] and want to go across [the street]” to a restaurant, he added, “that intersection is just horrible; it is not walkable.”
Hines asked Wiggins to explain to him how people would be expected to walk from Siesta Promenade to the commercial centers on the other three quadrants of the intersection.
Wiggins replied that the Benderson Development project team had to show the project would offer multimodal connections — walking and biking — to those areas around it. Still, Wiggins acknowledged, “It is very difficult to cross, given the amount of time [allowed pedestrians at the traffic signals].”
When one factors in the reality that some people walk more slowly than others, she continued, “That is something that is still going to be difficult.”
Pedestrian overpasses, she said, are probably the solution. “That’s what would have to occur … to get people from one side to the other.”
Hines asked her whether staff discussed with the Benderson project team the need for people to be able to move back and forth between Siesta Promenade and Sarasota Pavilion and Gulf Gate.
Crosswalks are in place at the intersection, Wiggins replied. However, as an extra safety measure, she said, “grade separation facilities” would be preferable. Later, she explained that she was referring to constructing one part of the road over the other.
“It’s academic, in a way,” Hines told her, “the way land use laws have created this crazy mess of an intersection that actually should shrink,” or have an overpass.
“What are we going to do at this intersection?” he asked Wiggins. Has county staff talked with FDOT representatives about an overpass at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, he continued.
Perhaps a tunnel is the answer, Hines added. Before he saw one in Fort Lauderdale — which, he stressed, goes under water — he would not have broached such an idea.
Digging into the options
If the commissioners later that day approved the petitions to make Siesta Promenade possible, Hines asked Wiggins, what will county staff do?
“You can’t just look at the intersection,” she responded. “There’s also the bridge,” she said, referring to the Stickney Point Road drawbridge. “We don’t have control over that,” she added, noting that the bridge is under U.S. Coast Guard authority.
“You have to look at all the pieces together,” she told Hines. “It has been discussed internally, if funding was not an issue,” that grade separation would be the solution, she said. She was less certain a tunnel would work in the area, she added, because of the high water table.
“It’s just all in theory right now?” Hines asked. “There’s nothing that’s being brought to us? Nothing that says, ‘We recognize that by constantly expanding lanes, all we’re doing is just bringing more traffic there’?”
Perhaps a “road diet” is another option, Hines continued, using a term that refers to decreasing the number of vehicle lanes on a road to increase pedestrian and bicycle access.
“You’re telling me that this is just a minor conversation among staff?” Hines asked Wiggins — that staff is not recommending any remedies for such a situation, even though the county’s land use regulations promote mixed-use development and redevelopment in the urban area. “I’m serious about this,” he added.
When he asked again whether any plan for improvements exists, Wiggins replied, “There is congestion today. There will be congestion in the future.”
It would be up to the commissioners to set policy, Wiggins continued, to deal with the U.S. 41/Stickney Point Road intersection. “It’s the [land use decisions for specific areas of the county] that [are] gonna drive what we can do with transportation.”
Then Hines asked Wiggins, as a professional traffic engineer, for her opinion about what the commission’s priorities should be to mitigate the problems. “What’s going to make the biggest difference?”
“There definitely needs to be an increase in transit,” Wiggins told him, adding that she also would recommend a pedestrian overpass at U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
At that point, Chair Nancy Detert spoke up about what she characterized as a comparable situation on the road to Sanibel Island. Like Siesta Key, she said, Sanibel is “a barrier island. Lots of people want to go there.”
Many years ago, she pointed out, the leaders of Fort Myers focused on the use of overpasses and other measures to move traffic along quickly, even on a toll road.
In fact, she continued, a mixed-use project with a hotel and a retail center — similar to Siesta Promenade — is close to the bridge to Sanibel. “It would kind of make sense as a model,” Detert added, for what the Siesta Promenade situation could look like “without clogging up traffic.”