Only valid bid for Midnight Pass-Beach Road roundabout on Siesta Key comes in more than $6.6 million higher than budgeted

County project manager tells Siesta Key Association members construction still set to begin in June

These are the design features of the proposed roundabout. Image courtesy Sarasota County

For almost a decade, Siesta Key residents have objected to a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) proposal to construct a roundabout at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, near the entrance to Siesta Public Beach.

In 2015, the opposition prompted FDOT leaders to back away from the idea. However, after FDOT revived it years later, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously in December 2020 to direct county staff to proceed for plans for the project.

Yet, during a March 7 update on the initiative that was presented to members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), residents again expressed adamant opposition to the proposal.

Whether the project will become a reality after all may end up being a function of the results of the bidding process. Vinod Sancheti, an engineer who works with the county’s Public Works and Capital Projects departments, acknowledged during his March 7 remarks that the county received only one bid for the undertaking that was deemed valid, and that was for more than $8 million.

FDOT’s Five Year Work Program shows only $2,925,252 in state and Federal Highway Administration funds allocated to the initiative.

In March 2021, the county commissioners awarded a $269,643.02 contract to Atkins North America to design the roundabout. FDOT, which agreed to pay for the design, expected that expense to be $360,000, county staff noted at the time.

Originally, county staff also expected the construction to get underway in the summer of 2022.

Materials that acting SKA Treasurer Robert Luckner received through a public records request filed with FDOT — which he shared with The Sarasota News Leader — show that Gator Grading & Paving of Palmetto submitted the bid that was deemed to be qualified. The total was $8,770,581.78.

A second document that Luckner received included an email exchange between Sancheti of Public Works/Capital Projects and Marquis Daymen, local program coordinator for FDOT’s District One office. On March 5, that exchange shows, Sancheti reported to Daymen that the local agreement the county has with FDOT for the roundabout calls for the state agency to pay $2,107,789. That leaves a shortfall of $6,662,792.78 for the undertaking, Sancheti noted.

Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, told the SKA members on March 7 that if the roundabout were not constructed, FDOT would allocate its project funds to another initiative, and that most likely would be in another county.

South Siesta resident James P. Wallace III responded, “People on the Key would love [to see the money spent elsewhere].”

The small percentage of residents favoring the project

During the March 7 meeting, Wallace talked during the SKA meeting about potential litigation over the roundabout plans, if FDOT and the county continue to move forward with the construction. He stressed that an online survey that county staff conducted in October 2020 netted only 552 responses, and only 33.15% of the respondents said they would like to see a roundabout constructed at the intersection; 32.07% wanted no change to the signalized intersection, while 29.89% were in favor of an improved signalized intersection.

Image courtesy Siesta Key Association

Nonetheless, the county’s Capital Projects Department updates on the roundabout say, “A public input survey in 2020 concluded that a modern roundabout at this intersection will offer improved safety and move the traffic more efficiently compared to an improved signalized intersection.”
The 2020 survey was not limited to Siesta Key residents; respondents were asked to identify themselves as island or mainland residents.

(The U.S. Census put the county’s total population in 2020 at 434,006, the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research — BEBR — reported in a 2021 document. (The Bureau is the source of population data for local governments in the state, as well as the state government. The county’s estimated population as of April 1 2021 was 441,508.)

Anderson of the Public Works Department emphasized to the SKA members last week that he provided the county commissioners the survey results before the board’s vote in December 2020.

“It is a decision that has come and gone,” Anderson told Wallace.

“At the end of the day,” Anderson said, county staff hopes Siesta residents will come to like the planned roundabout at Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road.

Nonetheless, he did note that staff could make “retrofits” to the roundabout if problems arose. “There’s always things that we can do,” he said.

Wallace did indicate that the SKA should be the party to instigate any legal complaint, in light of the continuing concerns that the roundabout will prove to be an impediment to traffic flow on and off the island.

(Wallace has been a strong advocate for a comprehensive traffic model to be created for use in regard to any new project on Siesta Key. However, the majority of the County Commission in late January refused to direct staff to pursue creation of such a model, citing the estimated expense that Anderson provided them. That was approximately $500,000. Only Commissioner Mark Smith, a long-time Siesta resident, voiced support for the undertaking.)

During the March 7 discussion, SKA President Catherine Luckner pointed out that revived plans for high-rise hotels on the barrier island make the traffic congestion worries an even greater concern. (See the related article in this issue.) She added that the SKA directors could research information related to the Beach Road-Midnight Pass roundabout and consider how best to proceed.

Vinod Sancheti. Image from his LinkedIn account

In the meantime, Sancheti of Public Works/Capital Projects noted, the tentative timeline still calls for construction to get underway in June, with an anticipated duration of up to one year.

He pointed out that county staff is working to get an incentive placed in the contract to spur completion at the nine-month mark.

Yet, Sancheti did acknowledge that weather is a factor that can delay projects, as the summer typically is the rainy season in Florida.

The solicitation that the county staff advertised contains this language: “Hurricane Preparedness Plan: Prepare a Project specific plan of action describing actions to be taken prior to a hurricane or other major weather event with respect to drainage, maintenance of traffic, securing of jobsite materials, and other jobsite related items. Submit this plan no later than at the time of the pre-construction conference.”

Further, Sancheti noted that two-way traffic would be maintained at all times during construction; accesses to residences and businesses would have to remain open; and crosswalks and pedestrian paths would have to be kept open.

Nonetheless, he cautioned that traffic delays no doubt would be a factor of the process.

‘Splitter islands’ and RRFBs

As FDOT representatives have done during discussions about roundabouts, Sancheti told the SKA members that such structures reduce the numbers of crashes, especially those with serious injuries and fatalities, because traffic moves more slowly.

Asked about crash data at the Beach Road-Midnight Pass Road intersection, Anderson said he would provide several years of data to the SKA to share with its members.

In response to a News Leader public records request this week, the Public Works staff provided a chart showing 15 incidents from November 2020 through July 2023. Six of them occurred in 2021, the chart noted, while two were recorded in 2022 and four in 2023. The last 2023 crash happened on July 15, the chart said.

Among the design features he noted during the March 7 presentation, Sancheti said that the pedestrian/bicyclist crosswalks will be constructed on the approaches to the roundabout, with “splitter islands” included. Those islands will be refuge points as people wait on traffic to reach the opposite sides of the crosswalks, he said. Persons will be able to activate Rapid Rectangular Flashing Beacons (RRFBs), which will stop traffic to enable those on foot and bicyclists to cross safely.

Bike ramps from the road to sidewalks and back onto the road are another facet of the design.

“We’ve seen [the RRFBs] on some of the roundabouts near the University Town Center,” he noted, referring to the shopping complex that lines both sides of Cattlemen Road in the vicinity of University Parkway and the Mall at University Town Center.

This is a still from an FDOT video, showing a pedestrian using a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon system in the Miami area. Image courtesy FDOT

Sidewalks with the width of 10 feet will be another feature of the roundabout project, he continued. Those will connect to the existing sidewalks on Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, Sancheti added.

Further, wider paved shoulders will be provided, “to give you more room” between the travel lanes and the sidewalks, he said.

Yet another feature that both Sancheti and Anderson, the Public Works Department director, addressed is the inclusion in the design of a second lane for drivers eastbound on Beach Road who want to head north on Midnight Pass Road. The other lane will be a through lane, Anderson pointed out.

In similar fashion, Anderson noted, westbound traffic on Midnight Pass Road that wants to head north will have a separate through lane.

Additionally, a signal will be included with the roundabout, Sancheti said, but it will be used only by members of the Sarasota County Fire Department who need to stop traffic in emergency situations.

‘We’ll never get out in traffic’

During the question-and-answer portion of the SKA meeting, one couple, who live in the Lakehouse development just west of the Beach Road-Midnight Pass Road intersection, talked of the difficulties they have making a left turn out of their complex onto Beach Road, especially during the height of tourist season.

Getting onto Midnight Pass Road, the woman stressed, “is almost impossible,” even with the traffic signal in place. “With continuous traffic [through the roundabout],” she continued, “We’ll never get out in traffic.

This aerial map shows the Lakehouse community, on Lake House Circle, situated northeast of the Midnight Pass Road-Beach Road intersection. Image from Google Maps

SKA President Luckner expressed hope that pedestrians stopping traffic to use the crosswalks would enable the couple to make such a turn.

Yet another woman talked about the fact that drivers proceed through crosswalks on the island, even when pedestrians are using those crosswalks. She suggested that Anderson and his staff undertake a study of that common occurrence.

She lives at Our House on the Beach, she said, which is adjacent to the Lakehouse community.

“I’m totally against the roundabout,” the woman emphasized.

Anderson replied that FDOT staff considered the volume of traffic at the intersection and decided that traffic would flow more smoothly with the roundabout in place.

Another woman pointed out that traffic routinely backs up at the modular, mini roundabout that county staff installed last year at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Ocean Boulevard.

One man, who said he generally is in favor of roundabouts, told Anderson, “This is a fairly unique situation” on Siesta, in regard to the traffic congestion near the beach along with the high number of pedestrians. “Your expectation of the outcome in this situation is not going to be successful,” the man warned. The traffic will back up on both Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road, the man added.