At long last, county staff wins railroad company agreement so improvements can be made to Myrtle Street crossing

County Commission votes unanimous approval of project plans

A graphic shows the area of the Myrtle Street railroad crossing improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert was the first to suggest this week that one item on the board’s June 4 Consent Agenda of routine business matters deserved extra attention.

Officially, the item said, “To approve a license agreement with the Seminole Gulf Railway, L.P., for replacement of the railroad crossing, road widening, sidewalks, new grade crossing signal system and drainage facility improvements on Myrtle Street West (between Central Avenue and North Orange Avenue) within the railroad right-of-way, in the amount of $3,113,867.00.”

“I really pulled this to compliment the staff for following through on things that have fallen through the cracks in the past,” Detert pointed out.

Referencing the June 4 staff memo in the backup agenda material, Detert added that in April 2012, the County Commission and the Sarasota City Commission discussed “moving forward with the Myrtle Street Improvement Project” during a joint meeting.

The next step noted in the staff memo said that a public meeting was held on Feb. 6, 2014, “to review the design plans with the residents in the communities along the Myrtle Street corridor.” At that time, the memo continued, staff planned to “work closely” with [the Seminole Gulf Railway] on the project.

The rail company is based in Fort Myers.

“This has been going on since 2012,” Detert added on June 4, “and I think that our new county administrator, Mr. [Jonathan] Lewis, is really doing a yeoman’s job in finding things like this that are important to the community and taking care of it … and we’re happy to close the loop and conclude it.”

She then made the motion to approve the agenda item, which passed unanimously.

On June 6, The Sarasota News Leader contacted former City and County Commissioner Carolyn Mason for her reaction to the news.

Former County Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo

“I’ve been on their butts forever about it,” Mason said, referring to county staff members and the gravity of the need for the replacement of the Myrtle Street crossing. Yet, she added, “I really understand the issue with the railroad.”

Especially since 2012, both city and county staff members have tried various approaches with representatives of Seminole Gulf in an effort to get the crossing project scheduled. City Commissioner Willie Shaw has voiced consternation over the delays many times in the past, as Mason did when she was still in public office.

“I think the county could have done more pushing,” Mason pointed out on June 6. “If you go across the railroad [tracks], it’s awful. Somebody’s going to get hurt. To me, the safety issue should have warranted somebody to jump up and down even more.”

Still, she said of the County Commission vote, “I am ecstatic.”

She was aware, she added, that county Public Works Director Spencer Anderson — who officially assumed that position on Oct. 1, 2018 — “has been working very hard [on the crossing project].”

Mason did not know about the June 4 board vote until the News Leader informed her of it, she said, although she added that she had heard of the potential of the work getting underway in July. She told the News Leader that she wished county staff had provided more regular updates to community residents, even if the announcements made it clear that there was nothing new to report.

She would be happy, she indicated, “when I see trucks and equipment out there, finally getting [the project] done …”

The memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the June 4 regular meeting explained that the reconstruction of Myrtle Street from U.S. 41 to approximately 200 feet east of Osprey Avenue was designed in three phases:

  • Phase 2A — U.S. 41 to Central Avenue. “The south side of this phase has been completed. The north side is designed but not funded within the County’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP),” the memo said. “It is estimated that $1.1 million will be needed to complete this section.”
  • Phase 2B — Central Avenue to North Orange Avenue. “The County has allocated $4.1 million to this phase. This work is planned to begin in summer of 2019 and be complete in late calendar year 2019,” the memo added.
  • Phase 2C — North Orange Avenue to west of U.S. 301. “The intersection at U.S. 301 and Myrtle Street has been completed,” the memo noted. “Funding is now in place to complete the remainder of this phase and [the project] will go to bid in the summer of 2019 with construction planned for completion in 2020.”

Details of the agreement

An engineering drawing included in materials for the June 4 agenda item shows details of the project. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The license agreement with Seminole Gulf explains that the company “owns the track, property and other Rail Facilities … comprising its lines of railroad within the vicinity of Mile Post SW 881.30 …” Under the terms of the agreement, the document adds, Seminole Gulf “will manage, contract for, and control the construction of certain elements [of the project] …”

As for the related stormwater drainage improvements: Flooding in the area is another problem about which Commissioner Shaw has complained in recent years.

The Seminole Gulf agreement says that the county will be responsible for any repairs, maintenance and cleaning related to the drainage features, but all the work on the company’s property “shall be performed by [Seminole Gulf Railway].”

Finally, another facet of the agreement calls for the county to pay Seminole Gulf $4,787.11 a year for the maintenance of the Class IV signal and gate system that will be installed at the crossing. That fee will be adjusted each year in accord with the Consumer Price Index, the agreement adds.

On June 4, after Commissioner Detert made the motion to approve the license agreement with Seminole Gulf, Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it. He extended his appreciation to Commissioner Shaw and to city engineering staff members. They came to a meeting with county staff members several months ago in which he also participated, Moran noted.

The primary topic of discussion that day, Moran indicated, was the fact that it was taking so long to work out the details with the railroad company.

Chair Charles Hines likened the Myrtle Street project to the decades-long efforts of county leaders to find a way to accelerate much-needed improvements on River Road in South County. “I’m happy that [the Myrtle Street plans are] finally moving forward.”