Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Brody criticize lack of strategies designed to help those who have to drive
Saying the proposed new master transportation plan for the City of Sarasota fails to incorporate sufficient provisions for persons who still need to drive, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody led criticism this week of the recommendations staff and a consultant presented to the board.
With Commissioner Willie Shaw joining them in the majority, they agreed only to accept the recommendations, not to adopt the plan, as staff had proposed on July 20.
The top staff priorities included in the plan — called Sarasota in Motion — ranged from narrowing Fruitville Road between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 to allow for wider sidewalks and parallel bike lanes along Second and Fourth streets; to an expansion of the city’s trail network — branching out from the planned Payne Park terminus of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail; to creating wider sidewalks and dedicated bikeways on sections of 10th, 12th and 17th streets, after eliminating lanes on those segments; to implementing more frequent transit service between downtown Sarasota and areas encompassing Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and Sarasota Memorial Hospital, for examples; to shifting the angle parking along Main Street between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 to parallel parking, along with the widening of sidewalks and landscaping enhancements on that segment of road.
Yet another proposal called for use of dedicated lanes on the Ringling Causeway and Coon Key bridges for walking, biking and transit vehicles.
When Commissioner Liz Alpert asked for details about how that would work, Colleen McGue, the city’s chief transportation planner, explained that the National Association of City Transportation Officials has provided best practices for implementing such lanes. The transit vehicle would have to travel no faster than about 20 mph, to ensure safety, McGue continued. Another recommendation is to make certain those vehicles are spaced no closer than 4 minutes apart in that dedicated space, she said.
The speed of vehicles on the two bridges during the height of tourist season, McGue pointed out, “is definitely less than 20 mph.”
The goal also would be to ensure that passengers would not have to wait more than 15 minutes to catch one of the transit vehicles, McGue added.
Policy implemented by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) allows creation of such a lane on the shoulder of a road, she said — an option the City of Miami is implementing.
Commissioner Brody noted that he has advocated for a trolley to transport people between downtown Sarasota and St. Armands and between downtown and Lido Key Beach.
Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) staff “is looking at procuring … two trolleys for this particular route,” McGue told him. City staff expects to have more details for the commissioners “very soon,” she added.
Getting to this point
City Planning Director Steve Cover also pointed out, “We’ve had some very good conversations with [SCAT staff] …” The trolleys likely could begin service “within the next year,” he said. However, Cover continued, the ultimate solution would be a separate path for those vehicles to traverse.
At the outset of the discussion, Cover explained that the genesis for Sarasota in Motion came in 2017, at staff’s behest. Then, in 2018 — with commission approval, he noted — two city staff members were hired to focus on transportation planning. The Planning Department also ended up hiring as a consultant Jason Collins, president and project manager of the Tampa firm ADEAS-Q.
To illustrate for the commissioners the extent of community involvement in the creation of the master plan, McGue and Collins emphasized the number of community workshops and “pop-up events,” plus survey participation and public interaction with an online map. Altogether, Collins pointed out, about 1,200 persons attended the events staff hosted, and 3,800 unique visits to the Sarasota in Motion website were counted.
Yet, as Freeland Eddie and Brody noted, the focus of the proposed recommendations was on pedestrian, bicycling and transit improvements.
“We have to not make people who drive cars the devil, and that’s kind of the way this transportation plan has been perceived,” Freeland Eddie said.
Moreover, she told McGue and Collins, the city’s downtown core received the most attention. Yet, getting around the city is a serious concern, Freeland Eddie continued. “You can’t get anywhere from Bee Ridge [Road] and downtown and [U.S.] 41 in 20 minutes,” she emphasized. “Congestion … is just a fact of life. … The problem to me is that this plan makes it easier for folks who have options to not drive.”
Brody told McGue that he believes the plan “does a great job” of improving pedestrian and bicycling access, noting that it includes filling in sidewalk gaps. “But it has to have some contemplation of making it easier for people to drive to and from the city and to get through the city.” Is there nothing among the proposals to address those issues, he asked.
“No, there is not an example of that in this plan,” McGue acknowledged.
Brody also objected to recommendations for more “road diets” to facilitate bicycle and pedestrian activity. “You can’t keep squeezing our roads down without other options and routes,” he said.
Alternatively, Commissioner Alpert, who supported adoption of the master plan, asked McGue whether it forces people out of their cars, as Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck, president of the nonprofit Control Growth Now, asserted in public comments to the board that afternoon.
“Right now,” McGue replied, “this plan is focused on providing options and choices, [so people are] not forced into their cars. What we hear,” McGue added, is that people do not want to have to drive in the future.
Further, McGue emphasized, if people who prefer to walk, bike or take public transit choose one of those options, they free up space on the roadways, reducing traffic congestion.
She also pointed out that no evidence exists that widening roads reduces congestion; yet, adding lanes is “very costly.”
One other focus of criticism for Freeland Eddie and Brody was the design of the survey questions posed to the public.
Those did not offer what Freeland Eddie characterized as “realistic options” for people. “Not everybody [can] afford to live downtown.”
“I’m totally sick of the surveys that are unscientific and crafted to get a [specific] result,” Brody added.
After Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch called for wrapping up the discussion — as 5:30 p.m. was near and the board had an evening session starting at 6 p.m. — Commissioner Alpert made a motion to adopt the master plan. “I think this was a well thought-out, data-driven and community-driven plan that I think moves us into the future,” she said.
Ahearn-Koch seconded the motion.
Ahearn-Koch alluded to earlier points McGue had made — that having an adopted master plan a would facilitate the city’s application for federal grants that could be made available to spur economic development during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I think that this is a flexible template [that was] meant to allow us to be competitive for funding,” Ahearn-Koch said. “This is the first step of many steps that we could continue to revise …”
Alpert took issue with a statement Brody had made earlier: “We need bold improvements to our vehicular traffic grid.”
Alpert responded, “I would proffer to you that this is a bold plan. This is a very bold plan moving forward.” She also contended that widening roads to improve transportation “is an old idea that has been abandoned in many cities. … You kill your city by putting through these wide roads,” which, she noted, are not walkable. “People start moving out.”
After Alpert’s motion failed, Commissioner Shaw made the motion to accept the master plan as presented, as a template to enable the city to pursue funding for projects.
Freeland Eddie seconded the motion, and it passed 3-2.
More details of the proposals
Early during the presentation to the board, Collins of ADEAS-Q explained that a citywide traffic network study was undertaken to document how people travel through Sarasota.
He showed the commissioners a map that pinpointed the locations of crashes over the past five years — incidents both with and without motor vehicles — where fatalities and serious injuries occurred.
“Crash rates in the city are growing faster than the state average,” he pointed out.
Moreover, Collins stressed, the Metropolitan Statistical Area in which the city is located is ranked No. 4 in the nation for the dangers pedestrians face.
Turning to another slide, he showed the board members that about 57% of the city has sidewalks — 162 of 286 miles. “That’s pretty well covered.” However, he continued, the areas encompassing North Tamiami Trail, Bird Key and the eastern portion of Fruitville Road have among the greatest sidewalk deficits.
For bicyclists, the situation is worse, he noted: Only 35 of the 286 miles of traffic lanes in the city have bikeways.
Turning to traffic volume growth, Collins said that, for example, approximately 30,000 to 35,000 vehicles a day travel on Fruitville Road east of U.S. 301. The growth in traffic on that segment since 2001 has been below 1% a year, he added.
Then Collins pointed out that 10th Street has fewer than 10,000 vehicles a day, even though it is four lanes. “It is well below its capacity,” he noted, as it can accommodate 30,000 vehicles a day. That was one significant reason the master plan recommended narrowing the segment from the bayfront to Orange Avenue to two lanes, to improve biking and walking options, he added.
Among other details Collins offered were the following:
- Seven of 10 Sarasota residents who work are employed outside the city.
- Six out of 10 residents live within 10 or fewer miles from their place of work.
- 19% of city residents travel greater than 50 miles for work. “This is considered extreme commuting,” Collins said.
- About 397 new residents are expected in the city each year over the next 25 years.
- The primary areas where the number of vehicle trips is expected to grow over the next 20 years are downtown Sarasota and just north of downtown. On the barrier islands within the city limits, the number of trips is anticipated to climb between 5% and 10% through 2040.