County Commission approves funding agreement with FDOT
In spite of the fact that the Siesta Key Association, the Siesta Key Condominium Council and numerous members of the public had emailed them protests about the plans — as indicated in comments this week — the Sarasota County commissioners took another step on March 21 to ensure that a roundabout is built at the intersection of Midnight Pass Road and Beach Road.
Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, explained that construction likely will begin “around May 1, 2024” and take approximately seven months. The contractor who wins the bid “could have it done … late next year or early into 2025,” Anderson added.
In response to a question from Commissioner Mark Smith, who lives on Siesta Key, Anderson said plans do not call for the intersection to be closed at any time while the work is underway.
Officially, on a unanimous vote conducted on March 21, the commissioners approved a Local Agency Program Agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which is providing $2,923,200 to the county for the roundabout.
As that agreement described it, the money will pay for “Construction and Construction Engineering & Inspection (CEI) services for a new single lane roundabout with an additional eastbound bypass lane at the intersection of Beach Road [County Road 789] and Midnight Pass Road
[State Road 758]. The project includes bicycle lanes, sidewalk, crosswalks, drainage improvements, landscaping, preemption signals, and signing and pavement marking.”
As indicated in that description, Anderson noted, that, in response to island leaders’ comments, the design includes a through lane that will allow traffic heading from the Village and the public beach to travel westbound to northbound. That feature was implemented, he added, to eliminate problems if traffic becomes clogged in the area because of traffic from the Stickney Point Road intersection.
FDOT originally planned for the initiative to begin in conjunction with the resurfacing of Midnight Pass Road this year, which will take place from the intersection with Stickney Point Road to the intersection with Shadow Lawn Way, an entrance to Siesta Isles. However, Anderson noted, those plans were put in place before the county and FDOT engaged in a “road swap,” which saw the state take over control of River Road in exchange for the county’s assuming authority over the roads on Siesta Key.
State leaders long had rebuffed county commissioners’ pleas for upgrades to River Road in South County, pointing out that as long as that road segment remained in county control, FDOT could not raise the priority level of its widening and necessary safety improvements.
The road swap was finalized in late 2020.
Before the construction of the Midnight Pass Road-Beach Road roundabout begins, commissioners told Anderson this week, he needs to engage in more community outreach. Commissioner Nancy Detert was the board member who stressed that action.
Anderson had noted past discussions of the project with members of the Siesta Key Association and leaders of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.
“I hope you are going to meet with the public as soon as possible,” Detert told him. “I think the board would feel better if you got some community involvement.”
Such engagement, she continued, might persuade residents of the barrier island to come over to Anderson’s side, in favor of the project.
Moreover, Detert added, “People talk, and they don’t always give accurate information to each other.”
A Venice resident, she pointed out that after the Jacaranda Boulevard roundabout was constructed in 2011, the multitude of accidents that ensued prompted a redesign of the structure. Community discussions on Siesta Key, well in advance of the start of the roundabout project at Midnight Pass and Beach roads, Detert said, also might result in public recommendations that would spare the county problems similar to those that occurred in Venice.
Commissioner Smith pointed out that he has lived on the Key nearly 30 years, but he could not recall any accidents occurring in the Midnight Pass Road-Beach Road intersection. When he asked Anderson for accident statistics for the location, Anderson replied that he would have to obtain them and provide them to Smith.
Pleas, protests and commission questions
Although the roundabout funding item was listed on the commission’s March 21 Consent Agenda of routine business matters, Commissioner Smith asked that it be pulled for discussion.
Even before Chair Ron Cutsinger acknowledged that action, another Siesta resident, Janice Webster, appeared before the board members during the Open to the Public comment period to request “very careful planning and more community involvement” before the project gets underway.
“Traffic is particularly intense at that intersection, which is located very close to the public beach,” she told the commissioners. By 10 a.m. on the weekends, she continued, the Siesta Public Beach parking lot has been full. Therefore, she said, “Drivers are rushing and frazzled as they are pushing forward to grab the last parking spot.”
Then, after sundown, Webster pointed out, the reverse situation occurs, as people leave the beach.
Further, the intersection is used by “huge numbers of pedestrians,” she stressed.
“You have runners, tourists, children, beach wagons, bikers, a trolley, golf carts … dog walkers and electric scooters that have come all the way from Pinecraft [the historic Amish-Mennonite community just east of the City of Sarasota limits on Bahia Vista Street]” converging in that intersection, Webster added.
Moreover, she said, because the intersection has a “Y” configuration, all of the above “are converging at different speeds from three different directions.”
“We definitely need a traffic and safety review,” she added. “We need pedestrian improvements at that intersection.”
During his remarks to the commissioners, Anderson of Public Works reminded them that staff did conduct an online survey of members of the public, asking questions about the proposal for the roundabout, before proceeding with plans for the structure.
No option won a majority of support, he said.
The survey results showed that, in response to the staff question, “What is your preferred improvement for the intersection at Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road?” 29.89% marked “Improved signalized intersection”; 33.15% indicated the roundabout; and 32.07% chose the “No change option.”
A graphic that Anderson presented to the commissioners in December 2020 showed that 47.15% of the survey respondents who supported the idea of the roundabout did not live on the barrier island.
In a March 17 email to the commissioners, Robert Luckner, treasurer of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), reminded the board members about those survey answers, stressing, “When the engineering budget [for the roundabout] was approved on 12/8/2020 staff acknowledged the SKA position that there were valid concerns about how pedestrian and bicycle safety would be handled by the new design. Over the past two years SKA has seen no outreach or discussion by staff about this concern of Siesta Key Residents. SKA requests an in person neighborhood workshop with Siesta Key residents to allow residents to understand and comment on how the roundabout would handle pedestrian and bicyclist traffic. SKA will participate and share our ideas. This should occur before any construction contract with FDOT is authorized.”
Luckner added, with emphasis, “SKA and [Siesta Key] residents still do not support this roundabout.”
Although Anderson acknowledged on March 21 that roundabouts “are polarizing,” he also pointed out that far fewer fatal accidents and incidents with significant injuries occur in roundabouts than at intersections with traffic signals. The Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) had conducted a recent study that underscored that fact, Anderson said.
“Roundabouts do slow traffic down,” he added.
Showing the board members a conceptual design of the roundabout on Siesta Key, he noted that the dedicated pedestrian crosswalks would have Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs) at each of the legs, for pedestrians to use. (A push of a button activates those systems, staff has noted.) Further, the new sidewalk in the vicinity of the roundabout will be 10 feet wide, Anderson continued, providing more room for the volume of pedestrians; and bicycle ramps will allow bicyclists who do not wish to traverse the roundabout via the travel lanes to use the sidewalk to proceed through the structure.
One other feature will be what he referred to as “splitter islands”: People will be able to take refuge at those sites, he said, if they are unable to walk all the way through the roundabout on a crosswalk before the RRFB system stops flashing.
Following his remarks, Commissioner Detert referred to Webster’s comments that morning. “Yes, roundabouts absolutely cut down fatalities,” she told Anderson. However, she continued, “That’s not the problem we’re trying to solve here.” Given the mix of people and various means of transportation that the Midnight Pass Road-Beach Road intersection sees, Detert said, “The only thing messier than this is the circle at the Arc de Triomphe in France.” She added, “It’s impossible” for people to cross that entire traffic circle because of the congestion.
Anderson responded that the Siesta roundabout’s design will be “one of the best ways to divert pedestrians to the appropriate crosswalks” and ensure that they are more visible to motorists. The only better option, he indicated, would be an overpass for pedestrians.
Commissioner Smith also noted, “It is an extremely tricky intersection for bicyclists and pedestrians, and I’m hoping this [roundabout] will be the solution that will make it less tricky.”
Commissioner Joe Neunder then asked Anderson what would happen if an accident did occur in the roundabout, and traffic was halted.
“The center apron is actually mountable,” Anderson explained. That was a design feature to enable larger trucks, with wide wheel bases, to be able to navigate the structure, Anderson added. Drivers potentially could use that apron to get around a crash scene, he indicated.
Otherwise, he said, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office deputies would have to direct traffic onto neighborhood roads.
Smith pointed out, “You can’t get to Midnight Pass Road through a neighborhood” on the south side of the intersection. “That was my major concern.”
Smith ended up making the motion to approve the agreement with FDOT for the project funding, and Detert seconded it.