City Commission opts for shorter lane turning right onto Fruitville from U.S. 41

The board also votes to ask FDOT to lower the speed limit to 30 mph from Fruitville Road to Gulfstream Avenue

Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw. News Leader archive photo
Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw. News Leader archive photo

On a unanimous vote, the Sarasota City Commission this week approved a recommendation to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to shorten the turn lane on the northbound segment of U.S. 41 from Gulfstream Avenue to Fruitville Road, which will allow for a wider median north of Palm Avenue.

The state department had provided the commission another option, which called for the right-turn lane to be a full third lane between Gulfstream and Fruitville.

In March, FDOT marked part of the right lane on northbound U.S. 41 between Gulfstream and Fruitville to make clear it was for right-turning vehicles only. The change was seen as a means of improving traffic flow, a city memo explains. FDOT will be resurfacing U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota starting in June, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw explained to the City Commission on Sept. 21, so it wanted the board’s view on how best to proceed with a solution until a roundabout is constructed at U.S. 41 and Fruitville in about five years.

During the board’s Oct. 19 regular meeting, DavisShaw pointed out that one of three rows of palm trees bordering U.S. 41 beside the Ritz-Carlton property would have to be removed if the board wanted to go with Option A, which calls for a 7-foot-wide median/traffic separator between Gulfstream and Palm Avenue. That option included three full lanes on U.S. 41 between Gulfstream and Fruitville.

Concern arose about the removal of the palms and the median width when the board members discussed the options during their Sept. 21 meeting.

Option B called for shortening the turn lane to allow for a wider median/separator north of Palm Avenue. “While this would allow a wider pedestrian area, the traffic backups from Gulfstream Avenue to the [Ringling] bridge would still be significant,” a staff memo says.

The City Commission approved Option B for U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
The City Commission approved Option B for U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Subsequent to the Sept. 21 discussion, DavisShaw said this week, she heard more comments from community residents. Additionally, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie walked the area with DavisShaw to assess the situation, Eddie told her colleagues during their Oct. 5 meeting, and DavisShaw took about nine people to the site last week, DavisShaw told the board.

The latter group included representatives from Golden Gate Point, the Ritz-Carlton and downtown condominium complexes, DavisShaw added.

After that group walked the area, DavisShaw continued, twice as many people supported the option of two through lanes instead of three. Diana Corrigan, president of the St. Armands Circle Association, preferred two through lanes and a third lane from Fruitville Road to Gulfstream Avenue just for traffic planning to turn east onto Fruitville, DavisShaw added. Bird Key residents favored that plan as well, she said.

“So far, we’ve had some mixed support for the different options,” she told the board, “and I think [the point of view] really depends on how often you get stuck on the [Ringling] bridge versus how often you’re trying to cross the road.”

Alex DavisShaw by Norm SCC BCC Oct. 22 2013
City Engineer Alex DavisShaw. File photo

However, she pointed out, FDOT is committed to a pedestrian crossing from First Street to the Ritz-Carlton, where statistics show the greatest demand to be.

In response to questions the board members had on Sept. 21, DavisShaw said she had confirmed that FDOT is committed to working on an educational process to make the public aware of whatever option it put into place. Further, FDOT representatives assured her, she added, that they would provide flashing signage and other means of alerting drivers to the fact that the area is a pedestrian zone.

Mayor Willie Shaw then pointed out that he recently walked in downtown Sarasota with representatives of the Sarasota Council of the Blind in recognition of White Cane Safety Day. As a result, he added, he believes special equipment will be needed at the First Street pedestrian crosswalk to assist sight-challenged people. “Can such a device be added … at this point?”

“I will check with DOT,” DavisShaw replied. Such equipment will be used to assist pedestrians at the crosswalks in all the roundabouts, she noted.

City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that having a dedicated section of the lane for right-turning traffic onto Fruitville Road from U.S. 41 will allow the realignment of that intersection, which should make it safer for drivers. Additionally, FDOT plans to eliminate the left-turn lanes on southbound U.S. 41 between Fruitville and Gulfstream, “which should minimize some of the rear-end collisions and keep the traffic moving a little more efficiently.”

Finally, he said, FDOT has agreed to reduce the speed limit from 40 to 35 in the affected area.

The only real option for the board, he continued, was to decide whether it wanted the two full northbound lanes plus the full, third right-turn lane between Gulfstream and Fruitville.

DavisShaw added that the through lanes would be 10 feet wide in both options.

Commissioner Liz Alpert said she felt leaving the shorter right-turn lane would be sufficient. “I don’t think we want three lanes of traffic just rushing through there. … I don’t think we want to make it difficult for people to cross that road.”

Traffic flows along U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue before construction began on The Vue. News Leader archive
Traffic flows along U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue before construction began on The Vue at the northwest corner of the intersection. News Leader archive

Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell and Commissioner Susan Chapman agreed.

Although the idea has been scoffed at, Atwell continued, at some time in the future she “would love to see some sort of passageway” created in the form of an overpass from the west side of U.S. 41 to the east side of the highway. That would be “the most optimum way to get people across there.”

Only one member of the public spoke on the issue before the board voted on it. Patrick Gannon said he was among the people who walked the area with DavisShaw and Barwin last week, and he prefers the full third right-turn lane between Gulfstream and Fruitville. “It does appear that the three lanes are needed now and especially in the future to allow for the traffic to speed up going through there.”

He also pointed out that the speed limit for southbound traffic drops from 40 to 35 on U.S. 41 at the 10th Street intersection. That speed limit needs to be 30 mph when the lane changes are implemented, he added.

After Gannon completed his remarks, Mayor Shaw asked whether the commission could request that FDOT lower the speed limit to 30 mph in the affected area.

“We can ask,” Barwin replied. “The likelihood of success is not necessarily high.” He added, “Traffic is like water: It finds its own level, its own speed.”

It would be especially difficult to enforce a 30-mph speed limit in that area during the peak of the tourist season, Barwin said. Nonetheless, he continued, “We can ask.”

Chapman then made the motion to recommend that FDOT create the shorter right-turn lane and to ask the department to lower the speed limit in the area to 30 mph.

Eddie seconded it, and it passed unanimously.