Variety of proposals included, with short- to long-range timelines
A draft of a multimodal transportation plan focused on Siesta Key and its immediate environs has been completed and is under staff review, Assistant Sarasota County Administrator Mark Cunningham has informed the County Commission.
Noting that “Transportation to Barrier Islands” ranked No. 2 on the commission’s priorities list for 2019, Cunningham said that after a department-level review of the study, the document will be turned over to county administration for its consideration. Then the commissioners will get the details, Cunningham added.
The information came on Nov. 5 as Cunningham and his colleagues — Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho and Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson — offered a quarterly status report on the board’s Top 12 Priorities for 2019.
Over the past couple of years, the commissioners have held multiple discussions and accepted a wide array of public comments on how to improve traffic flow and alleviate congestion on Siesta itself and on the approaches to the barrier island.
The same day Cunningham addressed the board, Paula Wiggins, the county’s transportation planning manager, pointed out in a discussion about future transportation needs that staff had hired a consultant to work on the Siesta Key initiative. “We will be able to … come out with projects [from] that [study],” Wiggins added. Some will be long-range initiatives, she said, while others could be accomplished on a shorter timeline.
After the commissioners have settled on projects, on the basis of the study, Wiggins noted that staff would be able to analyze the feasibility and expense of each one and then work on the next potential phases.
In recent months, leaders of both the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Association have reported their participation in discussions led by the consulting firm the county hired, ADEAS-Q, which is based in St. Petersburg.
Completed at the end of September, the four-page draft plan includes a map with color coding to specify short-, medium- and long-term projects — as Wiggins indicated on Nov. 5.
The document specifies 18 projects by number, noting the theme — “Parking,” for example — and the time frame in which each could be achieved.
The initiatives reflect a broad array of complaints and requests that island residents have made.
Delving into the proposals
No. 1 on the ADEAS-Q list, with the theme “Multimodal Access/Safety,” are five “Protected Pathways”: Midnight Pass Road from Sarasea Circle to Beach Road; Beach Road from Midnight Pass Road to Ocean Boulevard; Ocean Boulevard from Avenida Milano to Higel Avenue; Higel Avenue/Siesta Drive from Midnight Pass Road to Osprey Avenue; and Midnight Pass Road from Beach Road to Higel Avenue.
“Multimodal” is a reference to improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as drivers.
Of those five items, only the first two are classified for short-term responses. The segment of Midnight Pass Road from Sarasea Circle to Beach Road is scheduled for resurfacing in 2022, the chart notes.
Another project with a short-term designation often has been the focus of complaints at Siesta Key Association (SKA) meetings. Listed with the theme “Congestion/Safety,” it calls for a reduction in “Queue jumping” for westbound Stickney Point Road traffic approaching the Midnight Pass Road intersection.
SKA members through the years have talked with increasing frustration about drivers who use the left westbound lane on Stickney Point Road to get ahead of vehicles in the right westbound lane just before traffic reaches Midnight Pass Road.
Sometimes, people have conceded, drivers unfamiliar with the Key realize too late that they will have to turn left, to head southbound on Midnight Pass Road, if they remain in the left lane. Thus, those drivers execute last-minute “queue jumps.” Likely, SKA members have opined, the drivers want to head to Siesta Public Beach.
SKA members also have suggested to Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office personnel that signage on Stickney Point Road — alerting drivers to how traffic flow in each westbound lane is directed — could prevent many of the queue jumps.
No. 9 on the list calls for roundabouts at the following three intersections: Higel Avenue and Midnight Pass Road; Higel Avenue at Ocean Boulevard; and Midnight Pass Road at Beach Road. The first two are designated medium-range projects; the third one, a long-range initiative.
During heavy travel times on the Key — especially during the height of tourist season — northbound traffic often backs up at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Higel Avenue. That is partly a result of the proximity of the traffic light at the Higel/Midnight Pass intersection; however, it also is a result of the fact that drivers on Ocean must wait to see whether motorists on Higel will be turning onto Ocean or continuing straight on Higel. Not every driver uses turn signals to indicate his or her planned direction.
The projects listed as Nos. 10, 11 and 12 all relate to parking, and all have “Short” as their expected time frame for implementation.
No. 10 says, “Install paid parking (free to County residents)” in the main parking lot at Siesta Public Beach and at Turtle Beach.
Over the past two years, the commissioners conducted several discussions about the potential of implementing a paid parking program at Siesta Beach. The Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the SKA all conducted surveys of their members, with mixed results. The common response the organizations did find was that funds raised by a paid parking program should be used for new measures to alleviate traffic congestion on the island.
For example, the Chamber long has advocated for extending the route of the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley to the north end of the island and off-island, to encourage more people not to drive on the Key. Yet, arranging for off-island parking spaces and frequent trolley trips to those areas would be expensive, county Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department staff has cautioned the commissioners.
Nonetheless, Item No. 14 on the list calls for determining the feasibility of park-and-ride options at Gulf Gate Mall; the county’s Phillippi Estate Park, located at 5500 S. Tamiami Trail; and the Avenue D area on Stickney Point Road. Those also are classified as short-term options.
Another short-term solution regarding parking also has been the frequent focus of SKA members: using variable message signs off the island to indicate to drivers when the parking spaces are full at Siesta Public Beach. An adjunct proposal calls for use of a parking app that would assist drivers, as well.
At the commissioners’ direction, staff has been working on a plan to create that new lot on the front part of that county-owned parcel. A building at the rear of the property houses a 1-million-gallon water tank that was built decades ago — according to historical records, SKA leaders say — to help with fighting fires on the island.
On Nov. 5, Commissioner Alan Maio asked County Engineer Spencer Anderson about the status of the parking lot project.
Anderson replied that county staff conducted a community workshop on Sept. 26 on the Key. The next step will be a Planning Commission hearing, as staff works toward formal County Commission approval of a Special Exception to create the parking lot, Anderson added, as no public parking ever has been allowed on that site.
Anderson indicated that he and his staff hoped to have the necessary Planning Commission and County Commission public hearings scheduled soon.
“Wow. Great,” Maio replied. “Thank you.”
Maio had noted that he frequently gets questions about the timeline for that project.
The Sarasota News Leader this week requested information about when the first public hearing will be scheduled. The Public Works Department staff on Nov. 12 reported that the Planning Commission is expected to address the issue in the first quarter of 2020.