City of Sarasota moving utility lines in advance of FDOT drainage project on Siesta Drive

Traffic backups frustrate drivers headed to and from Siesta Key

An aerial view shows a segment of Siesta Drive where traffic was backed up in both directions this week. Image from Google Maps

As one person put it during the Jan. 17 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council (SKCC) at Siesta Chapel, “It is a catastrophe, and it’s just the first day.”

She was referring to the closure of one lane on Siesta Drive just east of the north bridge to Siesta Key.

Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio — the speaker for the SKCC session — told her that he was among those stopped in traffic “for a very long time” that afternoon. Finally, he said, he was able to spot the electronic sign warning drivers that the project would begin that day and continue through March 1.

“I just think they got to be a little,” he started and then paused. “It’s called ‘maintenance of traffic,’” he added. The contractor needed to be doing a better job of alternating the traffic flow, so no line grew too long.

“I think they don’t want people stacked up, sitting on top of the bridge,” Maio pointed out.

A second aerial view shows the project area, just east of the Siesta Drive bridge to Siesta Key. Image courtesy FDOT

Other attendees talked of waiting up to an hour in their vehicles, trying to get on and off the island that day. A Sarasota News Leader reporter headed onto the Key saw eastbound traffic backed up as far as Faubel Street, about a block south of the curve where Siesta Drive becomes Higel Avenue.

Responding to a News Leader question on Jan. 18, county spokesman Jason Bartolone wrote in an email, “The [county] Contact Center has received a few calls about the traffic/ construction project on Siesta. Over the past few weeks, it has been less than a dozen total. We received 3 – 4 calls yesterday about it. We have not received any email inquiries or complaints about the project.”

Jan Thornburg, the City of Sarasota’s senior communications manager, was out of the office until Jan. 23, the News Leader learned. Kathy King, assistant to City Manager Tom Barwin, told the News Leader on Jan. 18 that city staff had received a few calls about the traffic situation on Siesta Drive.

The crux of the problem

The San Remo Terrace intersection is a short distance from the north Siesta bridge. Image courtesy FDOT

When an audience member at the Jan. 17 SKCC meeting asked whether anyone knew exactly what was going on, Catherine Luckner, vice president of the Siesta Key Association, replied that she understood the City of Sarasota was engaged in a utilities project at the same time the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had begun a drainage project at the San Remo Terrace intersection on Siesta Drive. Construction also is underway on a new home in the same general area, she noted.

In response to questions from Siesta leaders, Brian Bollas of HNTB Corporation, acting as a public information consultant for FDOT, explained in a Jan. 18 email that City of Sarasota utility work had to be completed prior to the start of the FDOT drainage project.

(The email was shared with the News Leader.)

Michael Crumpton, engineering manager for the City of Sarasota’s Utilities Department, told the News Leader in a Jan. 18 telephone interview that the contractor had until the afternoon of Jan. 19 to complete the relocation of several “very large” water mains and sewer force mains, plus a 2-inch force main that connects to the bridge tender house on the Siesta bridge. If the firm could not finish up the work by that time without having to keep a lane closed, Crumpton added, “he will have to do that at night.”

In that event, Crumpton continued, the contractor — Spectrum, of Sarasota — would have to provide 48 hours of advance notice regarding when any further lane closures would be in effect.

Typical of high tourist season, traffic flows steadily in both directions across the north Siesta bridge on the evening of Jan. 12. Rachel Hackney photo

The start of the FDOT project has been pushed back to Feb. 6, Bollas added in his email. The plan calls for the state’s contractor to close a traffic lane only at night, between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.

In a Jan. 10 email, Bollas informed Siesta leaders that the contractor for the FDOT drainage project had told him, weather permitting, “it looks like the work should go fairly quickly.”

Crumpton reported to the News Leader that the city had “just a few weeks” of notice about the need to go ahead and put a contractor to work on its undertaking.

Crumpton said FDOT’s original timeline called for the drainage project to begin during the summer of 2015. At the latest, he continued, FDOT staff assured city staff that the starting date would be December 2015. “Things changed. They went to a different design and construction methodology.”

Robin Stublen, an FDOT spokesman in the District One office in Bartow, explained to the News Leader in a Jan. 18 telephone interview that, prior to the start of any road project, a detailed process is undertaken to ensure that all utility lines in the affected area have been identified. Because of the “finding of factors we didn’t know about” in the San Remo Terrace vicinity, he continued, the drainage project was redesigned. Many utility lines can be located in just one area, he pointed out. “We run into that all the time.”

FDOT staff asked city staff to move city utilities out of the way because the lines were in conflict with the state plans for the drainage project, Stublen added.

“Our lines were doing just fine out there,” Crumpton told the News Leader.

Vehicles are almost bumper-to-bumper as they head north through Siesta Village just after 3:30 p.m. on a recent weekday. Rachel Hackney photo

Because of the size of the utility lines involved, Crumpton pointed out, city staff wanted to be absolutely certain that no last-minute changes in FDOT’s plans would be forthcoming. “We didn’t want to go in and do the work twice.” Therefore, he said, the city “couldn’t do the work in advance,” out of season.

His preference would have been to handle the city project during a less busy period of the year, he told the News Leader. “In retrospect,” Crumpton said, “we should have asked [FDOT] if we could work at night,” as the city had to get FDOT permits for its undertaking. However, he noted, the city focus had been on “just trying to get the job done.”

As for some Siesta residents’ questions about the necessity of the FDOT drainage project, Crumpton assured the News Leader that flooding in the vicinity of San Remo Terrace is a problem. The goal of the FDOT project, he said, “[is] all for good; it’s just the timing [that is not].”

Crumpton added, “We have staff that goes out, and they have to wait in line, too.”