City Commission majority shoots down staff proposals for major traffic changes on Fruitville Road

Mayor Alpert the only member to argue in support of option for three roundabouts and two travel lanes between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301

A graphic explains the goal of the staff proposals for Fruitville Road. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With only Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert voicing her support for the concept, the City Commission this week shot down staff’s proposals for improving Fruitville Road between U.S. 301 and U.S. 41.

The staff’s preferred recommendation — Option 2 — called for three roundabouts, to be located at Fruitville’s intersections with Lemon Avenue, Central Avenue and Cocoanut Avenue. It also encompassed just one travel lane in either direction, as well as wider sidewalks.

Option 1 included plans to remove the bicycle lane along the affected part of the Fruitville corridor and, instead, encourage cyclists to use Second and Fourth streets. On the latter, signage and lower speed limits could make conditions safer for cyclists, staff explained.

Option 1 called for four travel lanes to remain on the Fruitville corridor, with the sidewalks to be widened to at least 10 feet.

Part of the staff presentation focused on the fact that the sidewalks on Fruitville Road are too narrow, at 4 feet in width, to accommodate people with disabilities. For that matter, Economic Development General Manager Steve Stancel pointed out, two people cannot walk side-by-side in most places.

This graphic shows details of Option 1. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Both options carried a price tag of about $14.3 million, though staff had begun work to try to secure a federal grant that could cover $11,457,400 of the cost for Option 2. The city’s estimated expense of $2,865,360 could be paid out of sales tax revenue allocated to capital projects, as well as tax-increment financing (TIF) funds for city projects and multimodal transportation impact fees, staff said.

The board did vote 3-2 to direct staff to come back with a new presentation on a possible initiative to create wider, safer sidewalks on the corridor. Commissioner Willie Shaw made that motion. Alpert and Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie voted “No.”

That followed a plea by Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown to address the problems with the sidewalks.

Freeland Eddie indicated that the discussion would be more appropriate when the board members begin work on the city budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

This graphic shows details of Option 2. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Finally, the board members were unanimous in supporting a motion by Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch to accept an invitation from the Longboat Key Town Commission to discuss regional transportation issues.

Maggie D. Mooney, the town attorney for the Town of Longboat Key, was the first speaker to address the board members on April 15, following the staff presentation. At several points during her allocated 3 minutes, Mooney stressed the town commissioners’ “grave concerns” about the Option 2 proposal, especially in the event the barrier islands were ordered to be evacuated with a hurricane approaching.

“We want to make sure a regional approach is being looked at,” she said of the proposals for Fruitville Road.

An April 10 letter to the city commissioners from Longboat Mayor George Spoll underscored that request, asking the City Commission to “consider regional impacts.”

The numbers and the rush hour scenario

This chart shows expected travel times along the corridor, with 2015 conditions and each option. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the April 15 discussion, Commissioners Hagen Brody and Freeland Eddie questioned the validity of the data staff had presented to assert that traffic volumes would not increase to a level that would impede traffic flow with Option 2, especially for drivers from Longboat and Lido keys heading east, who would use Fruitville Road.

“I don’t know what you can say that makes me believe these numbers are accurate,” Freeland Eddie told the staff members seated before the board, referring to charts with figures that were part of the staff PowerPoint presentation.

Staff maintained that its research — and traffic volume predictions — indicate that by 2038, the Level of Service (LOS) rating overall for the three intersections with the proposed roundabouts would improve to an A. (Stancel told the board that an LOS rating of A, like that grade in school, is the best.)

Stancel also explained that staff took the annual traffic count from 2017 and adjusted it for growth of 1% a year for 10 years and then adjusted it for another half a percent for an additional 13 years. The result, he continued, was an increase of about 17% in traffic volume for 2038.

When the staff of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) was working on plans for the roundabout it intends to build at the intersection of Fruitville and Gulfstream Avenue, Stancel said, it used a growth factor of 0.56% a year. “We were doublingwhat they were using.”

Brody further voiced concern that if the board were to approve Option 2, with the three roundabouts, rush-hour traffic on the Fruitville corridor would back up in those roundabouts because of traffic trying to flow out of side streets and because of the signalized intersections on opposite sides of the roundabouts.

Brody noted the “three stoplights that are after the roundabouts.”

A graphic shows details regarding Option 2’s roundabouts. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Michael Wallwork, principal at Alternate Street Design of Orange Park — who served as a consultant to city staff on the proposals — tried to assure Brody that that would not be the case.

Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein added that for the example Brody used — westbound traffic between Orange and Lemon avenues — the distance between the roundabout at Lemon and the traffic signal at Orange would be greater than the distance Wallwork’s calculation indicated for the theoretical queue of vehicles trying to enter the roundabout.

Brody told them he was not convinced they were right.

During their presentation, the staff members had asserted that “roundabouts have roughly 30% more capacity” than regular lanes of traffic. The traffic entering the Fruitville corridor from U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 has the biggest impact on how many vehicles can travel Fruitville between those intersections, Stancel said. He characterized those two intersections as “pinch points.”

Other commissioners’ views

This graphic provides traffic counts for the corridor. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

One of her biggest issues, Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch noted, was the proposal to narrow Fruitville Road. “It’s an issue that people aren’t getting their heads around.”

Alpert, however, talked of the fact that she drives through four roundabouts every time she heads to City Hall, and she also walks regularly through roundabouts. “It feels very safe,” she said of the latter action.

Noting studies that show walking and bicycling are safer in roundabout situations, she added, “If we really want to create a walkable city” and speed up traffic flow, the roundabouts would be the better option.

Furthermore, she said, Option 2 includes an 8-foot-wide traffic pullover lane, so drivers could move out of the way of emergency vehicles.

Bicyclists also could use that lane, staff said.

This graphic offers more details about Option 1. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In making the motion to deny both options presented by staff, Brody told his colleagues and the audience members that he felt neither staff proposal was appropriate at this time, and he also believed it was unfair to staff members “to keep leading them on. “This is years, years out.”

Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded the motion.

“We have transportation planners who are recommending this,” Alpert protested.

“I think there’s an Option 3 that’s out there,” Ahearn-Koch said. “I believe Fruitville Road can use some improvements,” she added, but she did not find Option 1 or 2 acceptable.

At one point, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown suggested that staff could pursue initial design work on both options and perhaps come back with a hybrid. With discussion having taken place in Congress about the potential for a major infrastructure bill being passed, Brown continued, the city would stand a better chance of winning federal funds for a Fruitville Road project if one were “shovel-ready.”

Shaw indicated his irritation at Brown’s suggestion, noting that “staff has this commissioner saying, ‘Uh, uh, no …’”

The board’s votes came after close to three hours of discussion and community members’ comments. By The Sarasota News Leader’s count, 17 people addressed the commission. Ahearn-Koch had noted that it was after 11:30 p.m. when the board began taking the votes on the agenda item.

Trying to make their case

A graphic shows current sidewalk conditions along the corridor. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The New Urbanism philosophy of walkable communities has spread across the United States, Stancel told the commissioners during the staff presentation. Yet, along the Fruitville corridor, the narrow sidewalks are not the only problem, he continued. People have to walk 68 feet or more, he said, when they use the crosswalks at the intersections between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301. Turning traffic threatens them, he added, and some just give up waiting on a signal to cross, so they dart into traffic.

During workshops staff held on the Fruitville Road conditions, Stancel continued, 96% of the attendees said the most important issue was the need for improved pedestrian crossings.

“Another problem is you don’t have any shade,” Stancel noted. “There is no room for vegetation [and that] is not conducive to pedestrian activity.”

The current cross section of the corridor shows a 4-foot-wide sidewalk on both sides, four travel lanes that are 10.5 feet wide each and 4-foot-wide bicycle lanes.

The median takes up another 10 feet, Assistant City Engineer Ohrenstein added.

This graphic has details about the crashes along the corridor. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

From January 2014 through December 2018, Ohrenstein continued, 244 crashes have occurred, resulting in one fatality and 55 injuries. The vast majority of incidents — 99 — were rear-end collisions, according to a graph staff presented.

Altogether, 12 crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists occurred during the same period, Ohrenstein noted, with one fatality and 10 injuries reported. “All of these crashes are focused on the intersections.”

If the commission approved Option 2 that night, Collen McGue, the city’s chief transportation planner, told the board that the engineering design work probably could be completed by the fall of 2020, with construction starting in the fall of 2021, following completion of the roundabout at U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road.

Public perceptions

This graphic provides estimates of the cost breakdown for each option. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Members of the public who addressed the commission after the staff presentation indicated strong feelings of support and opposition.

“I couldn’t agree more with Commissioner Freeland Eddie that the data is cooked,” Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, president of Control Growth Now, told the commissioners. Staff had not taken into account all the new projects within the city, he added, or the extensive growth expected in the eastern part of Sarasota County.

(Economic Development General Manager Stancel disputed Lobeck’s point about factoring in the more recent development in the city.)

Mike Lasche, who heads up the community organization called Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocates, pointed out that Fruitville Road became safe for bicyclists and pedestrians after the city striped the 4-foot-wide bicycle lane in 2014. He noted city data showing that only three bike crashes occurred in the corridor from 2010 to 2015, for an average of 0.6 a year. The crashes involving pedestrians, he pointed out, numbered eight, with no fatalities, for an average of 1.6 a year. “This is due to bike lanes.”

These entities offered support for Option 2, city staff said. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Conversely, David Lough, who explained that he is a member of the board of the Rosemary District Association, told the commissioners he took offense at Lobeck’s remark about the ”cooked data.”

“I’m a believer in science,” Lough continued, adding that he believes the drive time figures.

Patrick Gannon, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association, said his board endorsed Option 2. That proposal, he pointed out, “was a result of a great deal of work …”

“We are convinced that reducing Fruitville Road to two lanes for only two-and-a-half blocks between Cocoanut and Lemon avenues, installing roundabouts [at the three intersections], with 16-foot-wide sidewalks and pullover lanes is in the best interest of the residents and visitors of downtown Sarasota, the Rosemary District and the barrier islands,” Gannon said.

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