In spite of Commissioner Brody’s insistence on de-emphasizing roundabout projects as City of Sarasota transportation priorities, his colleagues vote to support staff recommendations

Commissioner Alpert stresses need to complete roundabout projects on U.S. 41, so traffic will flow smoothly

City Planning Department General Manager Ryan Chaplain, Transportation Planner Corinne Tucker and Chief Transportation Planner Alvimarie Corales-Cuadrado listen to commissioners’ comments during the Jan. 3 discussion about the MPO priority list. News Leader image

Five times on Jan. 3, over a period of about 35 minutes, Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody argued that he and his colleagues should move two bicycle trail projects to the top of their list of priorities for state and federal transportation funding.

One of those trails would connect North Sarasota to The Bay Park on the city’s 53 waterfront acres. Bicycle lanes on Cocoanut Avenue would be improved and lanes would be added on Central Avenue, according to the list, where that initiative was ranked No. 14.

The second project would connect Sarasota County’s Legacy Trail North Extension to the Bobby Jones Golf Club property via Beneva Road and the city’s Circus Boulevard Multi-Use Recreational Trail (MURT); that was ranked No. 13.

The top two initiatives on the proposed list were roundabouts on U.S. 41 at the intersections of Main Street and Ringling Boulevard; and roundabouts on U.S. 41 at Myrtle Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

“I feel like our community needs a little break from the roundabout construction and roundabout focus,” Brody stressed. “Nobody’s really clamoring [for them].”

Further, Brody wanted to move up the 10th Street Complete Street and the Boulevard of the Arts Complete Street projects, which are planned between U.S. 41 and Orange Avenue, as well as the redesign of Main Street from U.S. 41 to U.S. 301. The Complete Streets undertaking was No. 15 on the list, while the Main Street initiative was No. 5.

The notation for the Boulevard of the Arts/10th Street undertaking said the streetscape would be enhanced, potentially with wider sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, shade trees and enhanced landscaping, and lighting. Additionally, utility lines would be moved underground.

The Main Street proposal would entail the modification of the public parking spaces from angled slots to parallel spaces, to improve safety, plus the widening of sidewalks and the addition of more shade trees, the list pointed out.

This is the first page of the staff-recommended, 2022 MPO priority list provided to the city commissioners for their Jan. 3 meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Brody’s colleagues disagreed with him.

Moreover, two new city transportation planners — who had years of experience on the staff of the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) — offered their assessments that the best option would be to keep the priorities in place as presented to the board during its regular meeting on Jan. 3.

Chief Transportation Planner Alvimarie Corales-Cuadrado, who spent five years on the MPO staff, told the commissioners that the city should focus on the top three projects on the list, because they will get more points in the MPO scoring system. “The rest [of the initiatives] are basically moved around within the project priority process,” she added.

The MPO staff will be considering proposals from the organization’s other 10 jurisdictions, as well, Corales-Cuadrado explained, before that list is turned over to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

The formal agenda request item explained that the MPO “is the regional transportation agency that is responsible for coordination with [FDOT] and other local agencies for the allocation of federal and state transportation dollars. … Projects that are selected for funding through the MPO prioritization process this year will be placed in the new 5th year of the [MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program], which is the fiscal year that begins on July 1, 2027.”

This is the second page of the staff proposal for the 2022 MPO priorities. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The opposite view

Commissioner Liz Alpert, who has represented the city on the MPO board, also stressed to her colleagues, “It take years for a lot of these project to move up the list,” to get to the construction phase, “and a lot of money has been expended to get there.”

Alpert added that she believes the roundabout initiatives are important, so the entire roundabout system on U.S. 41 will work as designed.

“Excellent,” Mayor Erik Arroyo responded.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch agreed with Alpert, voicing her confidence in the city transportation planning staff members’ expertise.

Brody responded that he had acceded to staff recommendations on the MPO priorities in the past. This year, he wanted to try a different tack, he continued. “There’s so many roundabouts on this list …”

“You do get more points for the top three [projects]?” he asked Corales-Cuadrado and Transportation Planner Corrine Tucker.

They responded that that is correct.

“Why are we here talking about this if we’re just going to rubber-stamp it?” he asked.

City Commissioner Hagen Brody participates in a commission meeting in early January 2020. File image

The North Sarasota bicycle trail initiative “should be No. 1,” Brody insisted. “If we don’t prioritize it, it’s never going to get done.”
Residents also have asked the commissioners for the Boulevard of the Arts project, Brody added. “That should be moved up considerably.”

At one point, Vice Mayor Kyle Battie asked staff, “Realistically, what difference does it make, moving [projects] around?”

“If I’m being honest here,” Corales-Cuadrado replied, “none.” The MPO staff will reorganize the list to reflect what it wants, she added.

Further, she pointed out, “We know that [FDOT has] hundreds of different fund codes. “I’ve seen [FDOT staff members] pick projects from the bottom of the list to even fund. … It’s at their discretion as long as it’s on the priority list. That’s what’s important.”

“I have a potential solution,” Mayor Arroyo said. The commissioners collectively and/or individually could write to the MPO staff to indicate their desire for emphasis on what they feel should be the top three to five initiatives for the city.

“I don’t like to be wasting time on things,” Brody responded. “I think there’s hard and soft influence that we do have in this list.” He added that he does not believe the top three on that list are the ones the commissioners want to see as their highest priorities.

Brody also pointed out that commissioners will be traveling to Tallahassee and to Washington, D.C., to advocate for their priorities in discussions with state legislators and members of Congress, respectively.

After criticizing Sarasota County leaders for not planning any Legacy Trail connections beyond Payne Park in downtown Sarasota, Brody again asserted the importance of moving up the bicycle trail projects for the city. Otherwise, he said, legislators and members of Congress “can … throw that back in our face,” by noting the numbers of those trail initiatives on that MPO list.

“I think some of these really quality-of-life projects should be at the forefront,” Brody told his colleagues. “I think The Legacy Trail connections should be front and foremost because that’s happening right now.”

Sarasota County staff reported before the end of 2021 that the final segment of the North Extension to downtown Sarasota is expected to be completed in March. That stretch will run north from Bahia Vista Street.

“Just moving these roundabouts down [on the list] will move [other] things up,” Brody added. “I really want to make at least the North Sarasota Legacy Trail [project] No. 1,” he reiterated his earlier comment once again.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert makes a point during a June 15, 2020 discussion when all the members were participating in meetings remotely because of the pandemic. Both Alpert and Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch participated in the meeting remotely on Jan. 3, with COVID-19 omicron cases rising rapidly in the county and the state. File image

At that point, Commissioner Alpert said, “I’m just wondering how many times we’re going to say the same thing. We’ve gone around three times now, and we’ve all said the same thing.”

Brody then made a motion that would make the North Sarasota trail project No. 1 on the list, the Bobby Jones Legacy Trail connector No. 2, and give the Boulevard of the Arts Complete Street project a higher number, with the roundabouts shifted out of the top 10.

The motion died for a lack of a second.

Alpert subsequently made a motion to accept staff’s recommended list, and Commissioner Ahearn-Koch seconded it. That passed 4-1, with Brody casting the “No” vote.

Safety concerns for neighborhoods

Early on during the discussion, Ahearn-Koch voiced support for a bigger focus on new safety and traffic calming steps, which, at No. 27, were last on the list.

Speeding in neighborhoods, she said, is “one of the things that I hear most often from our citizens.” The problem has been cited by residents of Cocoanut and Central avenues, those on the bayfront, residents of Arlington Park, and those in South Sarasota, Ahearn-Koch added. “Pretty much everywhere in the city, speeding is a big problem.”

She noted a copy of a study, provided to the board members, that had found Sarasota to be No. 1 out of 101 Florida cities of the same size “for accidents and fatalities caused by speeding and reckless driving.”

Therefore, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “I think we need to pay attention to this.”

This is a ‘bulb-out’ in Coral Gables. Image courtesy City of Coral Gables

She added her desire to see that item moved higher on the list.

Brody responded, “We’ve taken a lot of steps, mostly on the enforcement side, to address it. I think that’s where it needs to be addressed. … Enforcing the speed limit ultimately is not too complicated.”

Ahearn-Koch said she understood his point. However, she added, “That’s also the most expensive way.”

The city could construct traffic-calming devices such as “bulb-outs” and speed tables, for examples, she continued, or narrow streets to force drivers to use slower speeds. “I think that speeding needs to be forefront of a lot of the decisions that we make as our city grows.”

Nonetheless, Ahearn-Koch said she would defer to staff’s expertise in regard to the ranking of the projects on the list.