City leaders laud improvements to Myrtle Street

New sidewalks on both sides of road and reconstruction of the road and railroad crossing among latest facets of project

Editor’s note: This article was updated early in the afternoon of Sept. 11 to point out that bicycle lanes also are a feature of the construction.

This is an aerial view of Myrtle Street looking west from Orange Avenue to the railroad tracks. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Aug. 28, Sarasota County Public Works Director Spencer Anderson passed along a progress report to Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham. The subject was the Myrtle Street Improvements Project.

“Myrtle Street remains closed from west of Central Avenue to just west of Orange Avenue,” Anderson wrote. “Sidewalk construction on the south side of Myrtle is expected to be complete by [Aug. 31]. Sidewalk on the north side anticipated to be complete within the next 2 weeks. Crews are working to complete the bed road (stabilized subgrade and base) in anticipation of the [asphalt work planned on Aug. 29], in advance of school resuming August 31st.”

Anderson also noted, “Remaining items of work such as landscape, irrigation, sodding and street lighting will be completed following paving of the structural asphalt. Once these items are complete … the final striping will be placed.”

Bicycle lanes are being added, as well, at the direction of the County Commission.

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin summed all up all of that in his Sept. 4 newsletter: “Some long-desired improvements to North Sarasota’s Myrtle Street are finally coming into shape.

“Crews have been putting the finishing touches on newly constructed sidewalks on the north and south sides of Myrtle between Central Avenue and North Orange Avenue,” Barwin pointed out. “They’ve also been working on the reconstruction and paving of the roadway and making much-needed improvements to the railroad crossing that will create a much smoother ride and a welcome upgrade for motorists who’ve driven over it in the past. The improvements are dramatic!”

This is a view of the work on the Myrtle Street railroad crossing, provided in City Manager Tom Barwin’s Sept. 4 newsletter. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Barwin further noted, “The work has been overseen by our partners at Sarasota County, with the roadway under their authority as it lies at the City limits. The improvements have been many years in the making and required lengthy negotiations with Seminole Gulf Railway, which controls the railroad crossing, before an agreement could be reached on the necessary easements and work. The City has strongly advocated and assisted in those negotiations and contributed more than $1.4 million, largely in Community Development Block Grant funds, of the project’s total $13.7 million cost to date.”

The final phase of the initiative is expected to include additional improvements to Myrtle from Orange Avenue to U.S. 41, Barwin added, “with a construction contract going to the Board of County Commissioners for approval in the coming weeks.”

Barwin concluded his newsletter item thus: “We’re thrilled to see a safer and more attractive travel corridor for the community, especially the new sidewalks and driveways that were in place in time for students’ return to nearby Booker High School … Thank you to all, including Commissioner Willie Charles Shaw, who have been involved in getting this long-needed project done!”

On Aug. 31, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham had forwarded Anderson’s update to Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, including an aerial photo showing the progress. That day, Brown responded, “This looks awesome. Thanks for sharing the update. Can’t wait to see/drive the finished product.”

Later on Aug. 31, after reviewing the same Cunningham email, Commissioner Shaw replied to the assistant county administrator and Brown, telling them how much he appreciated the news.

Shaw added that he visits the project area each day to observe the crew at work.

In April 2012, the City and County commissions — during a joint meeting — discussed “moving forward with the Myrtle Street Improvement Project.”

Nonetheless, as Barwin indicated, it took years of negotiations with the railway company, and county staff’s juggling of potential funding, to reach this point in the initiative.

In the latest Construction — One Week Look Ahead document produced by the county’s Capital Improvements Program (CIP) staff — for Sept. 7-11 — the Myrtle Street Phase 2 item points out that Myrtle from west of Central Avenue to Orange Avenue remains closed. “A detour is in place to guide motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists around the active construction area.”

“The roadway is expected to be open for traffic in mid-November 2020,” the document adds.

A brief history

In early June 2019, the County Commission formally approved a license agreement with the Seminole Gulf Railway “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,” as a staff memo put it.

“This has been going on since 2012,” Commissioner Nancy Detert noted on June 4, 2019, “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.

This May 4 photo shows work on the railroad crossing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Almost exactly six months later, the county commissioners took another step forward with the Myrtle Street improvements. They made it clear — in the form of a motion — that they wanted the county’s Public Works Department staff to find the extra, estimated $1.4 million to construct sidewalks and bicycle lanes — and install lighting — on the north side of Myrtle between Central Avenue and Osprey Avenue.

During a discussion with the board on Dec. 11, 2019, Anderson, the Public Works director, talked of line-of-sight issues and problems with pedestrian connectivity on the north side of the street. He recommended that staff just focus on the south side improvements.

The commissioners were quick to disagree with Anderson’s assessment.

“That road serves residential, commercial, recreation, schooling, workforce [and other needs],” then Vice Chair Michael Moran pointed out. “We’ll find the money for this.”

“This road has been long, long neglected,” Commissioner Charles Hines added, “and it’s time to fill in these [sidewalk] gaps.”