Potential changes to Fruitville Road grab County Commission attention

Board asks staff to keep it apprised of City of Sarasota planning; county MPO transportation priorities approved

Fruitville Road's intersection with U.S. 301 is busy on a late spring day. File photo
Fruitville Road’s intersection with U.S. 301 is busy on a late spring day. File photo

The subject for the Sarasota County Commission on Jan. 13 was supposed to be project priorities proposed for the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) board to adopt for inclusion in the development of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) 2016-21 work program, including those funded by the Federal Government. However, the issue that garnered most of the attention was not on any list: the City of Sarasota’s efforts to make Fruitville Road friendlier to pedestrians and people on bicycles.

After Transportation Planning Manager Paula Wiggins concluded her presentation on the MPO agenda item, Commissioner Christine Robinson asked, “Have you heard anything about the city proposing a ‘road diet’ for Fruitville Road?”

(Commissioner Carolyn Mason already had sought an explanation from Wiggins about the phrase “road diet” in Wiggins’ PowerPoint presentation. Wiggins explained that it was “similar to diets that we are usually trying to maintain. … It’s reducing a lane.”

Paula Wiggins. File photo
Paula Wiggins. File photo

In response to Robinson’s query, Wiggins said she understood city staff is working on a plan that might encompass an effort to reduce Fruitville Road from four lanes to two between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301. “No decision has been made at this time,” Wiggins added, noting that county Emergency Services staff also had asked her about that proposal, with concern that Fruitville Road is a hurricane evacuation route.

Wiggins said she understood city staff planned to talk with representatives of the Sarasota County Fire Department and law enforcement departments before making a final recommendation to the City Commission.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people out there do not know [about that proposal],” Chair Al Maio pointed out. “We need to be prepared with answers. People don’t really realize what that means to Fruitville Road.”

After Robinson then asked for board consensus to have County Administrator Tom Harmer keep her and her colleagues apprised of progress on the city initiative, Maio told her, “I think there’s complete board consensus on that.”

“I don’t want to be surprised by anything that comes down the pike,” Robinson added.

In a telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader after that Jan. 13 discussion, City Engineer Alexandrea Davis-Shaw explained that the city’s Downtown Master Plan, which was developed before the onset of the Great Recession, called for adjustments to the Fruitville Road corridor to make it easier for pedestrians to cross from downtown to parts of the city north of the road. During the economic downturn, she continued, the initiative was put on hold.

A City of Sarasota graphic shows traffic counts on Fruitville Road in March 2015. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A City of Sarasota graphic shows traffic counts on Fruitville Road in March 2015. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

However, given the new development under way in the Rosemary District, Davis-Shaw pointed out, the discussion has been revived. “We’re looking at quite a few residential units” in the Rosemary District, she noted, and the goal is to enable people living there to be able to move more easily between their homes and downtown Sarasota.

The city already has hosted several meetings to seek public comments on potential changes to the Fruitville corridor, she added, though “I can’t say we had a whole lot of attendance [at the last one].” Another session will be held in February.

Alex Davis-Shaw. File photo
Alex Davis-Shaw. File photo

While city staff has not proposed reducing the number of lanes on Fruitville from four to two, she continued, “there are folks asking for that.” If enough of them call for the City Commission to make that change, she pointed out, “that’s what could happen.”

Nonetheless, Davis-Shaw said, city staff is well aware of the fact that Fruitville Road is an important connector for residents of Longboat and Lido keys headed to Interstate 75, and “it’s very important for freight [transportation] and emergency evacuations.”

The goal at this point, she added, “is to hear what people want.”

The city’s 2015-16 Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) does include $100,000 for conceptual design development for Fruitville Road between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301, with the goal “to adjust the current suburban thoroughfare of [the road] to more closely reflect that of an urban boulevard.” The CIP adds that the project would be planned to facilitate “safe pedestrian activity and walkability between the downtown urban core and the Rosemary and Gillespie Park Neighborhoods [and] enhance the aesthetic value of one of the primary gateways into the City ….”

Another $400,000 was set aside for engineering and design plans.

Davis-Shaw told the News Leader that city staff hopes to complete the concept plan in February or March.

“Anybody who’s got suggestions, concerns, we need to hear them,” she said.

The rest of the MPO discussion

During the MPO priorities discussion, Robinson also asked Wiggins about the planned Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. Wiggins noted that it was not put on a priority list because the private developer wants to have it completed prior to the opening of the FDOT’s diverging diamond interchange at the Fruitville Road intersection. The $74.5-million diverging diamond is scheduled to be completed in September 2017.

The developer, Wiggins continued, is responsible for building four lanes of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard all the way through the Villages of Lakewood Ranch South to the project’s southern boundary. From that point, the agreement the commission approved calls for the county to construct two lanes of the boulevard to Fruitville Road, Wiggins added.

Among new projects on the MPO list, Wiggins told the board, are intersection improvements for Venice Avenue at Pinebrook Road and a project that encompasses the construction of a Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus shelter with crosswalks and Americans with Disabilities Act improvements at Siesta Public Beach.

In response to a question from Robinson, Wiggins said she did not know details of the Venice Avenue/Pinebrook Road except that it involves turn lanes. Wiggins added that she would get that information for Robinson.

A chart shows top county priorities for Major Improvement Programs. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A chart shows top county priorities for Major Improvement Projects. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among the projects proposed for Transportation Regional Incentive Program (TRIP) funding are a roundabout at the intersection of Cattlemen Road and Richardson Road; and the construction of a new section of Iona Road from Fruitville Road to Palmer Boulevard, Wiggins pointed out.

TRIP projects require a 50-percent local match, Wiggins said, and they must be on the Sarasota/Manatee/Charlotte counties road system.

Regarding the Iona Road plan, Wiggins noted that its completion will establish a route all the way from Manatee County to Clark Road. “The network is starting to be constructed,” she added.

On a motion by Mason, seconded by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, the board voted unanimously to approve the county’s 2016 Major Improvement Project priorities as well as the county’s top choices for state and federal transportation program funding, for adoption by the MPO board. Those on the former list, the staff PowerPoint presentation showed, retain their order unless the MPO board chooses to adjust it.