Electric vehicle shuttles seen as option to reduce traffic flow between downtown Sarasota and St. Armands Key

City Commission agrees to add three new proposed projects to special priority list resulting from Barrier Islands Traffic Study recommendations

The Ringling Bridge is the connector between Bird Key and the City of Sarasota. File photo

At some point in the future, an electric vehicle could shuttle people from downtown Sarasota, across the Ringling Bridge and onto St. Armands Key, where they could catch another electric shuttle to the beach.

That was a scenario the City of Sarasota’s chief engineer, Alexandrea DavisShaw, described to the city commissioners during their regular meeting on May 7.

The goal of the discussion that day was to win the board members’ approval for adding three projects to the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization(MPO) priority list for funding by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

Colleen McGue, chief transportation planner for the city, reminded the commissioners that they voted earlier this spring on a transportation priority list for the MPO to approve for inclusion in the next FDOT Five Year Work Program. Since then, FDOT released a draft of recommendations for dealing with traffic congestion between downtown Sarasota and the barrier islands.

McGue explained that the MPO has created a special list for projects based on the findings of the Barrier Islands Traffic Study, which FDOT has been pursuing on behalf of Manatee County, the Town of Longboat Key and the City of Sarasota. The local government representatives who are on the MPO board will consider those projects during their June 18 meeting, a city staff memo said.

In early March, Zachary Burch, government affairs and communications manager for FDOT, told The Sarasota News Leaderthat department staff is planning a public hearing before the end of the year to wrap up its work on the Barrier Islands Traffic Study. Additional public meetings are possible before that is conducted, he added on March 9.

Colleen McGue (left) and Alexandrea DavisShaw address the City Commission on May 7. News Leader photo

The three projects proposed for inclusion on the City of Sarasota’s priority list for Barrier Islands Traffic Study initiatives for the next FDOT work program cycle — which will begin July 1 — were as follows, McGue said on May 7:

  • Install high-visibility back plates to draw attention to the traffic signal at State Road 789 and Bird Key Drive. The draft study recommendations listed the estimated cost as $2,000.
  • Extend the length of the westbound turn lane for traffic at the intersection of John Ringling Parkway and Ken Thompson Parkway, near the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium campus. The city memo says that would “reduce queue spillover and blocking between westbound right and left-turning vehicles.”

The draft recommendations say, “The existing westbound left turn lane is about 75 [feet] long,” so it can accommodate only about three vehicles, assuming an average vehicle length of 25 feet. The westbound left turn volume averaged 150 vehicles per hour, and blockage at the intersection was observed in an analysis conducted for the study. The estimated expense is $200,000.

  • Install a bus/low-speed vehicle lane on State Road 789/Ringling Causeway.

McGue pointed out that working through the MPO to add the projects to the special list would make the initiatives eligible for state funding, if such funding becomes available.

Commissioner Hagen Brody was the first board member to raise a question. “One of my obvious concerns,” he said, is that, because the Ringling Bridge “can’t be extended or widened,” only a portion of the route proposed for a bus or low-speed vehicle lane would have sufficient space for that. He also voiced worry about how bike lanes would fit into that scenario.

Traffic backs up on the Ringling Bridge after an accident on the Coon Key Bridge in October 2016. Photo courtesy Sarasota Police Department

“We’re still in the conceptual evaluation stage,” DavisShaw replied. Although staff initially focused on the prospect of a “queue jump lane” for Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) buses, she continued, the small number of trips those buses make between the barrier islands and downtown Sarasota each day ruled that out. “That would be a pretty hefty investment,” DavisShaw added, considering the level of use. Then staff began focusing on the potential of vehicles similar to the i-Ride shuttle that operates in the downtown area, she continued, “so we would be in control of the frequency [of trips].”

Potentially, she told the commissioners, some segments of the route to St. Armands Key would have enough space to accommodate a lane for the shuttle and a separate bicycle lane. Bicyclists and the shuttle also could share the city’s Multi-Use Recreational Trail (MURT) in the area by the Ritz-Carlton, she added.

The biggest challenge, DavisShaw pointed out, is the Coon Key Bridge. If FDOT would lower the speed to 35 mph over that bridge, she said, an electric vehicle could transport people between downtown and St. Armands.

“Worst-case scenario,” she continued: FDOT staff will have all the components in place when it replaces the Coon Key Bridge. It could be 2025 before that project gets underway, she told the commissioners in early March. “We’re hoping to come up with a solution to implement in the near term” for the shuttle.

DavisShaw then also noted the need for a vehicle operating on St. Armands that could transport passengers between the shuttle stop and the beach.

“I think a trolley in this situation is such a no-brainer,” Commissioner Brody said.

A camera system

An aerial view shows the intersection of John Ringling Parkway and Ken Thompson Parkway. Photo from Google Maps

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch then asked DavisShaw to discuss the potential for a camera system to be used by residents and visitors to help them deal with congestion between the barrier islands and downtown Sarasota.

When she was campaigning last year for the commission, Ahearn-Koch explained, a woman who lives on Bird Key told her that the woman has friends living at the Ritz-Carlton and in Plymouth Harbor. When the woman wishes to drive downtown, Ahearn-Koch continued, the woman calls her friends to learn the status of the traffic flow.

If cameras could enable people to observe real-time conditions, Ahearn-Koch pointed out, they “might not venture over the bridge [if vehicles were moving slowly].”

The city has a camera at the Gulfstream Avenue intersection with U.S. 41, DavisShaw replied, but FDOT “doesn’t want any fiber [optic cable] to be placed on the bridge.”

When construction begins this summer of the West Area Multi-Use Recreational Trail from Coon Key Bridge along John Ringling Boulevard to Washington Drive on St. Armands, she said, the city will install conduit for fiber optic cable. However, staff has yet to figure out how to get the cable out to the barrier islands, she added.

Nonetheless, as part of Automated Traffic Management System (ATMS) for Sarasota and Manatee counties, DavisShaw continued, consideration is being given to using Bluetooth devices to monitor travel time of drivers on specific routes. That would be displayed on a website.

At present, she said, Google Maps, for example, “does a pretty good job” of using Bluetooth technology to estimate drive time on specific roads.

Commissioner Willie Shaw suggested the installation of a camera atop the Plymouth Harbor building that is one of the tallest in the county. A camera from that height would be able to provide a panoramic view of traffic conditions, he said.

Shaw then made the motion to approve the recommendations from the draft Barrier Islands Traffic Study for inclusion on the special MPO list, and Ahearn-Koch seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.