County’s Public Works director says he hopes to hold further discussions in next two weeks
Sarasota County’s Public Works Department director readily acknowledges that Siesta Key residents “weren’t all falling all over themselves” in May when he revived the idea of a roundabout at the intersection of Midnight Pass Road and Beach Road.
However, Spencer Anderson told the County Commission on Sept. 22, “Some of the major stakeholders” on the barrier island in the spring “were receptive to the idea.”
That was a big change, he pointed out, from their view in 2015, when the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) initially proposed a roundabout near the entrance to Siesta Public Beach.
“To my mind,” Anderson added, “there wasn’t any negative opinion about it” in May that would keep county staff from undertaking more public outreach.
Five years ago, he said, when FDOT first broached the idea as part of a planned resurfacing project set for 2022, “The public input … was not supportive of a roundabout.” However, he continued, people then were not as familiar with the structures.
The roundabout was the top choice of three proposals FDOT was considering, Anderson added. The other two, he pointed out, were a no-build option and improvements to the signalized intersection.
In the spring of 2022, Anderson continued, FDOT plans to resurface the portion of Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way, which is the entrance to the Siesta Isles neighborhood. Therefore, he told the commissioners, FDOT would like to move ahead with the roundabout plans for Beach and Midnight Pass roads. Already, he said, FDOT is at the 60% mark with designing the structure.
If the commissioners agree to proceed on that path, Anderson added, then the county would need to complete the design by October 2021, at a cost $360,000.
FDOT would cover the $1-million construction expense, he pointed out.
“So what you’re telling us here today,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded, is that the only expense for the county would be the $360,000.
“Yes, ma’am,” Anderson said.
“And FDOT hasn’t put us on a back burner [because of a decline in revenue as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic]?” she asked.
The project is included in the department’s Five Year Work Program, Anderson told her. FDOT staff members have not indicated any change in their willingness to fund the $1-million construction expense, he added.
“There’s shortfalls in roadway budgeting,” Commissioner Alan Maio said, but he indicated that if a project is included in the Five Year Work Program, that is a sign that the department is intent on undertaking it.
“And then it becomes our road?” Detert asked Anderson.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied.
“OK,” Detert said.
As part of an initiative that began about three years ago, FDOT is taking over authority of River Road between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 in exchange for the county’s assuming control of Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41, along with Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Higel Avenue, along with Higel and part of Siesta Drive.
Anderson noted on Sept. 22 that the “road swap” would be complete after FDOT formally files all the right of way paperwork linked to the changes in roadway authority, which is expected later this year.
As a result of the Sept. 22 discussion, the commissioners voted unanimously to direct county staff to continue its public outreach efforts, which Anderson said staff would pursue quickly.
Anderson told The Sarasota News Leader this week that he hopes to hold those further discussions within the next couple of weeks. “We are coordinating with stakeholders [on] the island for possible joint opportunities,” he wrote in a Sept. 29 email.
Asked during his Sept. 22 presentation how soon the roundabout could be built, Anderson said that it would take “probably close to a year.”
One challenge for staff and FDOT, he acknowledged, would be the necessity of dealing with traffic during the height of tourist season. Detours would be a necessity, he added. “You’ve seen that done many ways,” he said, in the city of Sarasota, where a number of the structures have been built in recent years.
Pros and cons
Roundabouts are “the one issue that’s always 50%,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler pointed out. Whenever he has surveyed constituents on their feelings about the structures, he explained, 50% of the respondents offer support for roundabouts and the others make it clear they do not like the structures. “They’re passionate on both sides.”
Ziegler told Anderson, “Do as great, times 10, as you can,” in getting more public comments about the Siesta Key proposal.
Commissioner Maio also voiced support for more public workshops on the Key.
Commissioner Charles Hines noted that signalized intersections are more expensive to maintain. Moreover, he said, “Safety is better [with roundabouts].” The vicinity of the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection, Hines added, “is a dangerous area where people like to go fast. [A roundabout] slows them down, [and], aesthetically, it’s a lot prettier.”
Additionally, Hines said, in the aftermath of hurricanes, power outages “do not affect roundabouts.”
During his Sept. 22 presentation, Anderson told the board that not only have roundabouts proven themselves safer than signalized intersections, but they also entail about 25% less “points of conflict,” as he put it, between vehicles and pedestrians.
He also reminded the commissioners that the number of roundabouts constructed in the county and in the city of Sarasota since 2015, and their resulting use, has prompted many members of the general public to shift to a more positive view of the structures.
“The public mindset has really changed on roundabouts,” Commissioner Detert pointed out. In general, she said, roundabouts “[speed] up traffic, of which there is much … on that [Siesta Key] road.”
Commissioner Maio, who represented all of Siesta Key in 2015 as part of his District 4 territory, told Anderson that he remembers that island residents “absolutely gagged at a roundabout. … The people were pretty adamant.”
They asked him to convey their view to L.K. Nandam, who then was a professional engineer with FDOT’s District One operations. (Since then, Nandam has become District One secretary.) As a result of his discussion with Nandam in 2015, Maio continued, FDOT backed away from the roundabout proposal.
Maio also noted that, at that time, the Jacaranda Boulevard in Venice “was pretty problematic,” which was another factor fueling the opposition on Siesta. (Later, FDOT improved the Jacaranda Boulevard structure to resolve issues that drivers cited as contributing to multiple accidents.)
Additionally, he recommended that Anderson ensure the design of the roundabout include the type of curbing “so drivers have to wreck their cars mounting it.”
Finally, Maio asked that Anderson confirm with Nandam at District One headquarters that Sarasota County would not be “penalized somewhere down the road” because of FDOT’s using that $1 million on the Siesta project.