County Commission approves new options for phase of Myrtle Street improvements
During a series of discussions in 2013, the Sarasota County commissioners delved into an issue that — they indicated — had become increasingly vexing for their constituents: poor road conditions.
In email exchanges in December 2012 with then-Commissioner Christine Robinson, the county’s chief engineer at that time — James K. Harriott Jr. — pointed out that it would take the allocation of $9 million a year to maintain an “Excellent” rating for the pavement on two-thirds of the county’s roads.
Seven months earlier, during a May 2012 budget workshop, Harriet and other members of the county’s Public Works Department staff estimated that it would take the annual dedication of $15 million over 24 or more years for the county to reach the goal of having no road with an OCI rating below 60. “OCI,” which stands for “Overall Condition Index,” is the standard rating system for roads, they pointed out.
More debate ensued as the commissioners moved into their monthly budget workshops in 2013.
Finally, on May 14, 2013, the board members voted 3-2 to allocate $10 million per year to road resurfacing from the 2014 fiscal year through the 2018 fiscal year. Robinson and then-Commissioners Nora Patterson and Carolyn Mason supported the move, while then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta and Commissioner Charles Hines opposed it.
“If you’ve ever gone to a city that hasn’t kept up with its road repaving, the message is loud and clear,” Patterson said: “This community is not doing well.”
As the current County Commission looks ahead to the next five years of the county’s road resurfacing program, staff has made it clear that the 2013 goal of keeping 60% of the roads at an OCI of 60 or above is becoming increasingly difficult. The good news, Public Works Director Spencer Anderson said during the board’s May 25 budget workshop, is that “we are at the 60% [mark] for the 60% rating.” However, he continued, $10 million “is not going as far as we thought it would.”
That is a result of inflation and a newer Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirement that whenever a road is resurfaced, appropriate ADA improvements must be undertaken at intersections, he explained.
“That’s eating up 5% to 10% of our budget as it is,” Anderson pointed out of the latter work. By the time the inflation factor is added in, he said, the effectiveness of the resurfacing program has been reduced about 20%.
During the 2019 fiscal year, Anderson continued, staff will be examining ways to maximize the resurfacing program at the current funding level, including potential changes in how repaving is handled.
“I would assume that my colleagues share a similar volume of concerns and questions regarding road resurfacing,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo told Anderson. Is a county list available for the public, Caragiulo asked, so people can find out when particular roads will be resurfaced? Caragiulo quickly followed up his inquiry with the acknowledgement that it his understanding that “things inevitably have to change for a lot of reasons.”
Because the list “is very dynamic,” Anderson said, it would be easier for the board members to convey questions from their constituents to the Public Works staff for the most up-to-date answers. “We’re sometimes hesitant to make that a public list,” Anderson added of the resurfacing projects planned over a period of time.
He did show the board a slide noting general areas for resurfacing projects planned in the 2019 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. “These are specific areas,” he stressed, “but not specific roads.”
The three locations on that chart where resurfacing is planned in the 2019 fiscal year are Beneva Road; the Rivendell subdivision and various other South County subdivisions; and Deer Hollow, Pine Shores Estates and various North County subdivisions.
At the outset of the discussion — which focused on the next five years of the county’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) — Anderson had explained that, each year, the commission approves a five-year CIP. However, only the projects listed for the first year of the program are those staff plans to undertake that year. Changes routinely are made in the CIP lists for the subsequent years, as circumstances dictate.
For the Roadway Resurfacing Program, Anderson pointed to a total of $33 million in revenue from the county’s penny sales tax — or surtax. Another $12.5 million in revenue is expected from the gas tax.
Myrtle Street concerns
Another project that has been the focus of County — and City of Sarasota — commission discussions for years involves Myrtle Street in Newtown.
The “sticking point” has been negotiations with the Seminole Gulf Railway, which owns the tracks along that route. Former Commissioner Carolyn Mason complained numerous times about the terrible condition of the crossing. In recent months, Commissioner Michael Moran — who is her District 1 successor on the board — has taken up the cause.
Railroad officials have told county staff that the full cost of improvements to the railroad’s part of the Myrtle Street segment between Central Avenue and Orange Avenue would be $2.6 million, Anderson reported on May 25. (During a May 27, 2016 presentation to the board, Thai Tran, a program manager in the county’s Capital Projects Mobility Department, noted that the project also would necessitate easements for drainage as well as the crossing work itself. Another facet of that phase entails right of way acquisition, Tran added.)
Commissioner Moran told his colleagues, “I guess ‘frustration’ is probably the best, most positive word I can come up with,” in regard to the negotiations with the railroad.
Altogether, Anderson noted on May 25, $5.3 million has been estimated as the expense for the entire phase of the improvements between Central Avenue and Orange Avenue.
One option, Anderson continued, would be to replace the existing tracks and then undertake the other planned improvements outside of the railroad corridor. Those include installation of sidewalks and lighting. However, he noted, that would leave gaps in the sidewalk along Myrtle.
The total expense for that option has been estimated at $3.1 million, with $350,000 of that for the tracks.
However, staff’s recommendation, he said, is to add the Central-Orange segment of the Myrtle Street project to what staff calls the “Surtax 3” program. That encompasses projects funded by 1 cent of sales tax in the county.
The third iteration of the sales tax program won voter approval during a November 2007 referendum. Collections began on Sept. 1, 2009; they will expire on Dec. 31, 2024.
Staff has indicated that groundwork already is being laid for a fourth surtax program to be put before voters.
The revenue pays for major infrastructure projects, such as the improvements at Siesta Public Beach, which were completed in early 2016, and the new Gulf Gate Library that opened in 2015.
If the Myrtle Street project were added to the Surtax 3 list, Anderson pointed out, $3 million could be appropriated out of the revenue for the full slate of improvements — including lighting and sidewalks — between Central Avenue and Orange Avenue. Then another $1,150,000 could be used from the Surtax 3 railroad crossing program to supplement that funding.
However, Anderson cautioned, the railroad money would be available only if voters this November approve the $65-million county bond referendum on the North Extension and other facets of The Legacy Trail.
“If we own that corridor,” Anderson said of railroad line for The Legacy Trail’s North Extension to downtown Sarasota, the county would not have to worry about replacing crossings on those tracks. That would free up money for other railroad-related projects. “It gets us in a much better place.”
Staff also would go back to Seminole Gulf Railway, he said, and try to re-negotiate the $2.6 million estimate for the improvements on Myrtle.
Additionally, he continued, staff might be able to find funding for the rest of the Myrtle Street improvements from other sources, such as North County mobility fees and School Board impact fees, since Booker High School and Booker Elementary School would be linked by the project between Central and Orange avenues.
The commissioners agreed to the inclusion of the Myrtle Street project on the Surtax 3 list and a future re-evaluation of the $2.6 million quote for improvements to the railroad corridor.