Longboat commissioners plead with county commissioners to intercede for them with City of Sarasota leaders to mitigate traffic congestion

County commissioner suggests transportation summit to provide details to the public about projects underway and those planned

The Ringling Bridge connects downtown Sarasota to Bird Key and St. Armands Key. File photo

Their former county administrator this week asked the Sarasota County commissioners to work through the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in support of the Town of Longboat Key’s efforts to improve traffic flow to and from that barrier island.

“This has been a terrible year for traffic on the barrier islands,” Town Manager Tom Harmer told the county commissioners during a Feb. 26 joint meeting with their Town of Longboat Key counterparts.

Harmer served as county administrator for about four years before beginning his position with Longboat Key.

As talk on Feb. 26 turned to the multitude of construction projects underway in the city of Sarasota, however, the mayor and one Longboat town commissioner took a different tack from Harmer’s.

“I implore you to take our side and act like the big brother that you can possibly be,” Mayor George Spoll said. He asked the county commissioners to try to persuade the Sarasota City Commission to request that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) wait at least until after the 2021 tourist season to construct the planned roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue, Mayor George Spoll told the county commissioners.

Longboat Town Commissioner Jack Daly was even blunter: “Absent … very frankly, some political input here … I’m afraid we’re not going to get much action.” Unless the City Commission makes a formal request for a delay in constructing that roundabout, Daly added, he does not believe FDOT will modify its plans.

His understanding, Harmer said, is that the work on that project is expected to begin as early as October; at the very least, by the end of this year.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler makes a comment during a June 19, 2019 budget workshop. File photo

In the meantime, County Commissioner Christian Ziegler offered an idea that county board Chair Michael Moran promised to pursue: The county could host a transportation summit, similar to its 2019 Water Quality Summit, to inform the public in detail about all the transportation construction projects underway and those proposed — including each initiative’s expense and timeline. “I think that you would get a lot of people turn out,” Ziegler said. “I think there’s a lot of public interest.”

“I think Commissioner Ziegler is making a good point,” County Commissioner Alan Maio responded. His suggestion, Maio continued, would be for Moran to bring up the idea during the next monthly Council of Governments meeting. Generally, Maio pointed out, administrative staff and elected leaders of all the local governments — along with representatives of the Sarasota County School Board — attend those sessions, including Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and City Manager Tom Barwin. “All, in their own way, [are] interested parties,” Maio said.

Moran replied that he would be happy to bring up the idea. “Easy decision.”

Isaac Brownman, the Town of Longboat Key’s public works director, joined Town Manager Harmer in noting all the City of Sarasota projects with which Longboat Key residents and visitors have had to contend during this tourist season: construction of roundabouts on U.S. 41 at 10th and 14th streets in Sarasota and at Fruitville Road; the removal of Australian pines for a Multi-Use Recreational Trail (MURT) project between Coon Key and St. Armands, which necessitated lane closures; and the construction of the 10-foot-wide MURT itself, which began early this month.

“What we have done is allowed a city to run amok in construction projects all at one time, one upon another,” Mayor Spoll pointed out.

Additionally, Brownman noted, the third left-turn lane for eastbound drivers on Gulfstream Avenue planning to head north on U.S. 41 has been shut down since November 2019 because of construction in downtown Sarasota.

A photo taken in late February by a St. Armands Key resident shows traffic backed up past the residence at 213 N. Washington Boulevard, as vehicles try to get onto John Ringling Boulevard to access the Ringling Bridge to downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In regard to the U.S. 41 corridor, Town Commissioner Daly added, “The city understandably is focusing on pedestrian mobility …” Yet, he said, the initiatives are “almost without regard to the impact on traffic flow.”

Daly added that the city should “consider elevated pedestrian walkways, [which] are superior to traffic lights.”

Harmer and Brownman did acknowledge that not all the problems have been on the south end of Longboat. A number of Manatee County projects also have led to long backups on the northern end of the island, they said.

“Let this other construction stop,” Harmer said, so the Gulfstream roundabout initiative does not overlap them.

The worries ahead

Longboat leaders sent a formal letter to the Sarasota City Commission, asking that it seek a delay of the Gulfstream roundabout construction, Harmer told the county commissioners.

“I’m not going to get in the middle of it,” County Commissioner Maio said. However, Maio asked whether the Longboat Commission received a response.

“I think the formal position of the city … is to move full steam ahead with the roundabout,” Harmer replied, adding that he was uncertain how all the city commissioners feel.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch has been very supportive of the delay, he noted, in emails and in public comments.

This is an email Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch sent constituents on Feb. 22. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

(On Feb. 24, Ahearn-Koch and City Manager Barwin were scheduled to meet with L.K. Nandam, secretary of FDOT’s District One, to discuss the traffic issues. In a Feb. 22 email to residents who had sent her complaints and pleas, Ahearn-Koch wrote, “I am hopeful we will have a serious conversation on potentially pausing the Gulfstream roundabout construction.” The next City Commission meeting is set for March 2. Typically, the commissioners and Barwin provide comments about such meetings during a period set aside for those remarks.)

During the Feb. 26 discussion between the Longboat and county commissioners, Harmer said he believes the city is committed to paying for 50% of the roundabout expense, with the state picking up the remainder. He also noted that he understood the project first was proposed about 10 years ago.

An FDOT graphic presented in March 2018 showed the tentative plans for the roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. Image courtesy FDOT

“There’s been no discussion from the state or the city collectively about reconsidering [the timeline],” he told Maio.

Mayor Spoll referred to the “war of letters” between Longboat Key residents and City of Sarasota administrative staff. “There seems to be a complete lack of understanding of what the practical effects are of this monstrosity that has developed,” he said of the effects of all the city’s construction on travel to and from the barrier islands.

He has lived on Longboat for 27 years, Spoll added, “and I have never seen anything like this. What we have is an absolute refusal to accept the fact that this is having a deleterious effect on property values. People are putting their properties on the market.”

Additionally, reports go out to potential visitors to avoid Longboat Key, Brownman said. The message is “‘You can’t go anywhere,’” he added.

Yet, Longboat “is a very strong contributor to the economy of the Sarasota area,” Spoll said. “To lose Longboat as a tourism driver would be tragic. … It’s insane.”

Longboat Town Commissioner Ken Schneier pointed to an example of how public outcry could influence the City Commission. Last year, he noted, city staff continued to push for what was called a “road diet” for Fruitville Road between U.S. 301 and U.S. 41. The plan was to reduce the number of travel lanes from four to two, he continued. “[City] staff still is somewhat very positive about that project.”

Nonetheless, at the conclusion of a public hearing, Schneier said, the City Commission voted 4-1 to keep four lanes on Fruitville Road. “I think, if anything, we’re hoping that an outcome like that can be developed [for the Gulfstream roundabout plans].”

If city leaders were able to persuade FDOT to delay the start of construction of the Gulfstream roundabout for one year, Longboat Commissioner Daly said, “[that] would give us a respite,” and then community leaders could re-evaluate “the effectiveness of the existing configuration,” with the three northbound, left-turn lanes from eastbound Gulfstream Avenue onto U.S. 41.

In the meantime, Brownman talked of the need for an improved notification process for the public and other local government leaders when a new city project timeline has been set.

The Barrier Island Traffic Study

These are the priorities for the Town of Longboat Key among recommendations that will be provided with the completion of the Barrier Island Traffic Study. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key

During the Feb. 26 discussion, Brownman also reminded the county commissioners that, with the MPO’s urging, FDOT began a $1-million Barrier Island Traffic Study in July 2017, involving Lido and Longboat keys. “We’re looking to see that study come to a conclusion early this year.”

Approximately 70 recommendations will be offered, he continued, which deal with traffic flow from Anna Maria Island through Lido Key.

Brownman then showed the county commissioners a slide with Longboat Key’s priorities among those recommendations. For the southern end of Longboat and for Lido, he said, the following are on the list:

  • Implementing a counter-flow of traffic on the John Ringling Causeway during the afternoon peak travel time during tourist season. Stantec, a Sarasota consulting firm that worked with FDOT on the study, “has developed concept sketches,” showing how that could work, Brownman noted.
  • Addition of flexible travel lanes for all future bridge projects — for high-occupancy and mass transit vehicles, for examples — for use during heavy traffic periods. FDOT has agreed to that for the planned Coon Key bridge replacement project, he said. (That project is not listed on FDOT’s Five Year Work Program, which was approved in July 2019.)
  • Pedestrian managers working on St. Armands Circle during tourist season. “It seems obvious,” Brownman said, that those people would be able to keep pedestrians from trying to cross the travel lanes “at every moment of the PM peak hour.”
A graphic shows results of a study using a software program called Streetlights to assess the worst travel times on Longboat Key. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key

Longboat leaders reached an agreement to fund one-third of the expense of those pedestrian managers, with the state and the city each picking up another third. That funding shift is scheduled to start on March 13 and continue through April 19, Harmer noted.

The goal, he said, is for the program to become permanent during the peak tourist season.

  • Elimination of “certain parking spaces [on St. Armands Circle] that really cause operational conflicts” with traffic flow. FDOT identified that problem, Brownman noted, but “the city … asked that it be removed [from the final list]. We kept it as a key recommendation.”
  • As a long-term initiative, use of an aerial tram — or gondola — between Sarasota and St. Armands and Lido keys.
  • Better coordination of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus service on Longboat.
  • Construction of pedestrian bridges over U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota.