Exacerbated traffic congestion during high tourist season remains big focus of Siesta residents, with South Siesta Beach Repair Project looming

Bids from contractors to be opened on afternoon of Feb. 15

On Feb. 7, eight days before Sarasota County staff plans to open bids on the South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project, the Capital Projects Department released questions and comments that residents posed about the initiative as part of a Jan. 24 virtual workshop, along with staff’s answers.

Of the 76 submissions, The Sarasota News Leader counted 17 — close to 25% — included worries that the undertaking will exacerbate traffic on and off the island during the height of tourist season. Because of the June 30 deadline that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set for the county’s use of grant funds that the agency has provided for the project, the shoreline work must be completed before sea turtle nesting season officially begins on May 1, county staff has explained.

County staff also has pointed out that FEMA informed county representatives of that grant deadline in writing on Aug. 9, 2022.

The goal of the initiative is to replace sand on the southern shoreline of the Key that was lost to the effects of Hurricane Hermine in September 2016. The storm’s passage through the Gulf of Mexico came about four months after a contractor had completed the second renourishment of south Siesta Key Beach.

More of the damage occurred on the southern end of the project limits, county staff has explained. Therefore, more of the 92,500 cubic yards of sand that will be used for the repair project will be put on that section of the affected shoreline, Project Manager Curtis Smith, a member of the county’s Capital Projects Department, explained to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members in December 2022.

Beach-compatible sand will be trucked to the site from an inland mine approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) for renourishment initiatives. Smith has estimated that 100 trucks a day will come onto the barrier island via Stickney Point Road and then South Midnight Pass Road.

The project team has noted that the target date for starting construction is March 1.

As of late afternoon on Feb. 7, a document showed that the News Leader was among 23 companies that had viewed the solicitation materials that the county released on Jan. 13. Among them were Gator Grading & Paving of Palmetto, Trinity Contractors LLC of Bradenton, Atlantic & Gulf Dredging of Indiantown, Earth Tech Enterprises Inc. of Fort Myers, Coastal Engineering Consultants Inc. of Louisiana, and Manson Construction Co.

Bids are due to be opened at 2:30 p.m. on Feb. 15.

A variety of concerns about the effects on traffic flow

The News Leader is providing a sampling of the questions and comments submitted to county staff in conjunction with the Jan. 24 virtual workshop on the South Siesta Key Beach Repair Project, along with county staff’s responses.

One person wrote the following: “As a long-time, full-time resident of South Siesta Key (Island Reef), I have observed traffic during winter season and spring break — in particular — getting more and more congested. It can often take an hour to get from our place to [U.S.] 41 during late morning and afternoons at this time of year (2 to 2.5 miles). That is without any special projects occurring. I am not opposed to beach renourishment, but I believe this is one of the worst times of the year for this project to occur. I have both safety and access concerns.”

That person then asked several questions:

  • “How are you prepared to handle emergency vehicle traffic getting to and from the south part of the Key? There are a number of seniors with chronic health issues and disabilities in this area.
  • “How are you prepared to handle the loading and off-loading of people (at numerous sites) [where the Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley stops] … at least every half hour?
  • “How are you prepared to handle the lowering and raising of the bridges for boat traffic that occurs several times an hour and can lead to severe gridlock at [U.S.] 41 and Stickney Point [Road] during this timeframe?
  • “How are you prepared to handle the increase in sometimes erratic pedestrian traffic, especially from the 6 [crosswalks] in the South Key Village area?
  • “How are you prepared to handle the increase in bicycle and golf cart traffic that occurs especially during the February to April timeframe up and down south Midnight Pass? Additionally, many of these vehicles are driven by inexperienced riders/drivers.
  • “How will this impact regular trash pickup and delivery that occurs at numerous curb sites along Midnight Pass?
  • “What about [U.S. Postal Service] mail delivery along this route? Will carriers be delayed or hampered in their routine operations?
  • “Some folks who live here really do continue to work at formal employment. How will this impact their getting off and on the Key to get to and from work?”

This is the county staff response: “The contractor for this project will be responsible for managing the neighborhood impacts of their work. Both County staff and our construction engineer will work continually with the contractor to ensure they minimize congestion and handle traffic responsibly. Just as private projects and commercial operators are allowed to use public roads, while observing all the requirements of law and ordinance, our contractor will be allowed to use the public streets in a similar manner. We are aware of the traffic concerns and will actively monitor the contractor’s performance on traffic management. When adjustments need to be made, we will work with the contractor on solutions.”

Staff added that the sand deliveries to the project site “will occur roughly” between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. “Based on those hours,” staff continued, “people trying to get to a 9:00 am job may experience some delay. People heading to an 8:00 am job or returning from work after 5:00 pm should not experience a significant traffic impact from our project.”

Further, staff pointed out, “We will not allow our contractor to park or stack trucks on Midnight Pass Road. … [The trucks] will have the same impact as any other vehicle in transit.”

Another resident wrote, “I am very concerned about the plan to truck sand down Midnight Pass Road during high season when traffic is already high volume and thousands of tourists are visiting businesses including bars and restaurants [on] foot. Thousands of large trucks moving through a heavy pedestrian area is adding significant risk that someone will be injured or killed. It makes no sense that Sarasota County would authorize this work to occur when the area is at its most busy and highly congested. Adding 100+ trucks per day over Stickney Point and down Midnight Pass Road will cause bigger backups on Stickney Point which impact residents, tourists and locals seeking to access the beaches. This work could be done in the summer months when it is less busy and would have less impact on everyone. … Please don’t do this project during January, February, March or April. It should be done over the summer …”

Staff responded, “The existing conditions at South Siesta Key Beach and Turtle Beach warrant a beach renourishment project and the volume of sand needed [is] consistent with a truck haul sand project. Truck haul sand projects have been conducted on both coasts of Florida and are a safe and affordable technique to renourish beaches throughout the State. The work cannot be done in the summer as that conflicts with the height of sea turtle nesting season. Since our federal grant expires on June 30, 2023, and we must be off the beach by May 1st, we must implement construction before then.”

Among other comments and questions, one resident expressed the following concerns about the effects on the roadways of the heavy trucks hauling sand: “I understand that the contractor for the South Siesta Key Beach Restoration project will be responsible for repairing any damage to the roads traversed for this project. Will the County conduct a survey of the condition of Stickney Point bridge and Midnight Pass Road documenting the condition of the road prior to the start of the project? Where will this document be published for public access?”

Staff responded, “A pre-construction survey of the roads is not required for this project. The project will be monitored visually for impacts during construction. Any issues will be directly addressed to the contractor for repair.”

One resident inquired thus about the traffic congestion issue: “What impact will the sand hauling make on the already busy intersection at Stickney Point and Midnight Pass Road?”

Staff replied, “We’re discussing the traffic situation with our Transportation Planning team to ensure we have their input and involvement.”

Yet another person addressed concerns about traffic congestion in these comments and question: “[P]lease secure daily traffic direction at the Midnight Pass/Stickney [Point Road southeast quadrant] to help direct traffic OFF the key. Getting back on is not too bad, but I promise you, this light (which is confusing at best), will back your sand trucks up [north of the Sanderling Club, which stands just north of Heron Lagoon] and delay the entire project. If you cannot secure traffic direction during replenishment, please at least get the (county?) to install a flashing red light and a sign to yield to pedestrians in the [crosswalk] (the current red arrow confuses almost everyone (especially tourists) and people sit there even though they have the right of way backing everything up > a mile easily).”

Staff responded, “The County is aware of traffic counts and volume during this time period and will monitor the situation during construction and make any necessary adjustments as needed.”

The same person who provided those comments also asked, “If not for the … deadline for the FEMA funding, would the County be more likely to renourish Turtle Beach sand using the same dredging procedures used previously? If not, why not? Seems there was a lot of research completed prior to choosing the dredging procedure for previous renourishments.”

Staff pointed out, “Offshore dredges are very costly and therefore suited to larger-scale projects. The significant additional costs to go offshore makes truck delivery for smaller projects cost-competitive with dredging.”

In preparation for the renourishment of Lido Key Beach in the city of Sarasota in 2021, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which handled that project, had to solicit bids twice. In early August 2019, the USACE cancelled its first solicitation, citing the fact that the only two bids it received were “unreasonably high.” While the USACE had estimated the cost of the project at $14,149,000, the lower bid was $22,135,100. The higher offer was $27,195,725.

The drawbridge factor and effects on businesses and Blind Pass Road residents

Back to the traffic concerns, another resident wrote, “To move 92,500 cubic yards of sand with 20 cubic yards [per] truck implies that 4,625 truck trips must be taken. And, that [assumes 12 hour workdays, five days a week, in March and April],” the person pointed out. [The math indicates] that 9 trucks per hour have to turn right on Turtle Beach Road off of Midnight Pass, dump their sand on the beach and come back out to turn left on Midnight Pass Road. This means that 9 huge trucks must go in and 9 trucks go out every hour right in front of the [Turtle Beach Grill] on a blind corner. Any trucks stacking here will cause congestion on Midnight Pass.”

Turtle Beach Grill stands at 8865 Midnight Pass Road, on the bay side of the road.

Moreover, that individual wrote, “It would be unlikely to average 9 trucks dumping [sand] per hour. This requires a new truck to turn [onto] Turtle Beach Road, dump [sand] and come out every 6.5 minutes. As it is coming in an empty truck must get out.”

The person then asked, “Have the South Siesta Key business owners been informed of the South Siesta Key Beach Renourishment Project —particularly the Turtle Beach [Grill], Turtles Restaurant and Ophelia’s? Has anyone quantified the impact on residents living on Blind Pass Road and in the two condos, Fisherman’s Haven and Fisherman’s Cove? Their only access is via Turtle Beach Road. This situation calls further into question the [6.5-minute] timing.”

County staff responded, “The contractor will be required to maintain two-way travel through Turtle Beach Park. Construction vehicles are governed by the same laws as everyone else requiring them not to block the travel of emergency vehicles. If flagmen are in place at times, travelers may experience the same sort of delays as with any other construction project.”

Another comment/question focused on the drawbridge on Stickney Point Road: “Given the enormous amount of traffic at peak tourist season, can we at least have the drawbridge activations decreased? [One] large boat causes serious backups all the way to Tamiami [Trail]. With all these trucks, it will be even worse.”

County staff pointed out, “The Stickney Point Road drawbridge is operated under a permit with the US Coast Guard. Altering the drawbridge’s operating permit is outside the scope of this project.”