Project to improve walkability of Fruitville Road between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 added to City of Sarasota priority list for state funding

City commissioners first protest staff making request without their having discussed potential design options

A graphic shows concerns about pedestrians trying to cross Fruitville Road in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

A staff request to add a potential “road diet” on Fruitville Road to the City of Sarasota’s priority list for transportation funding from the state and federal governments led to almost 30 minutes of discussion this week, with the City Commission ultimately agreeing to accept a “placeholder” project.

Ryan Brown, the multi modal transportation planner for the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), stressed that the city’s preliminary application, which would go to the MPO first and then to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), “doesn’t define what the project will be …” All FDOT would be concerned about, he added, would be the boundaries of the project, which would be U.S. 41 and U.S. 301. Any proposal would have to go undergo a thorough review involving environmental issues, design concepts and right of way acquisition, he continued. The state’s staff will evaluate the viability of whatever the City Commission ends up approving, Brown said.

“Road diet” is the term community residents have used derisively to refer to the potential narrowing of Fruitville from four lanes to two to accommodate more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly measures.

The purpose in putting the Fruitville project on the city’s MPO list, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw said, is to identify the city’s desire to make the corridor “more walkable.”

The majority of other projects on the list the commission approved on March 5 — which will go to the MPO for a vote, and then ultimately on to FDOT for funding consideration — dealt with roundabouts on the U.S. 41 corridor and in downtown Sarasota.

“It takes five years, usually, to get funding,” DavisShaw explained during the board’s regular meeting on March 5. Therefore, by the time the commissioners settle on a plan for Fruitville Road, she added, “we’d already at least be in the queue” for grant assistance.

If the board eventually decided it did not want to pursue any type of project on Fruitville between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301, she continued, staff would notify the MPO to remove the project from the list.

“I think we should support this and get our name in the [funding] queue,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said, though he was quick to add, “I’m a long way from approving a ‘road diet’ …”

Fruitville Road is a hurricane evacuation route. That is one reason some community leaders have questioned city proposals for a ‘road diet’ on the stretch through the downtown area. File photo

With Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch absent due to illness, the board members finally voted 4-0 to approve all projects proposed by staff for the city’s MPO priority list, except for the Fruitville Road project. Then, on a 3-1 vote — with Commissioner Willie Shaw in the minority — the commissioners agreed to include the Fruitville Road project as a new priority, with no defined concept.

Both Shaw and Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie protested that the commission should not have been asked to vote on the Fruitville project without the commission’s having discussed the issue first.

The deadline for submitting the priorities to the MPO is March 16, DavisShaw said. Yet, city and MPO staff members did not meet until late February to discuss the priority list for this year, she explained, so she did not have sufficient time to get a discussion included on the March 5 agenda.

“I’m going to support [the motion],” Freeland Eddie told her, “but not because I like the way that it happened. … I think that you all put us in a bad position …”

In making the motion for the “placeholder” status for the project, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert pointed out that the board members would be remiss if they lost a year in the effort to get funding for whatever they end up approving for Fruitville Road.

Protesting the process

A November 2015 presentation prepared for the public shows Fruitville Road running through downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Shaw was the first board member to broach the subject of the “road diet.” He told his colleagues and staff, “I don’t like to go and have monies pushed out there” to a project that has not been approved. The inclusion of Fruitville Road on the MPO list would imply that the board had taken a position on the design, he indicated.

When Freeland Eddie also protested, noting that public comments still are being gathered on a potential design, Alpert argued that all DavisShaw was seeking “is that we’re in favor of doing something to make [the corridor] more walkable.” Putting it on the list, Alpert added, “doesn’t commit us to any project.” Nonetheless, she said she does support making Fruitville “more pedestrian-friendly than it is now.”

“All of us want to make this community more walkable,” Freeland Eddie replied. “We’re not saying [otherwise].”

The goal with the priority list, City Manager Tom Barwin explained, is “to get projects up on the radar screen at the MPO.” Staff anticipates coming before the commission “within the next year or so” to seek its decision on how to proceed with Fruitville, he said.

After DavisShaw talked of putting the project on the list as a placeholder, Commissioner Shaw told her, “If we want placeholders, I’ve got about seven other things …”

Commissioner Brody also questioned how the priority list for the MPO originated. “Have we already approved or encouraged you to move forward with these projects?” he asked DavisShaw.

“They have all been on past requests to the MPO,” she told him, except for the Fruitville project.

City Engineer Alex DavisShaw addresses the City Commission on July 17, 2017. News Leader photo

Brody and Ahearn-Koch were elected to the board in May 2017.

“So what’s the downside for us?” Brody asked.

If the city does not submit a ranked list for MPO consideration, DavisShaw explained, then other cities’ and counties’ priorities will move up higher on the Sarasota/Manatee list, and money that could have come to the City of Sarasota would go to them instead.

Commissioner Shaw initially made a motion that called for the board to accept all the priorities on the list proposed by staff except for the Fruitville Road project. Freeland Eddie seconded it, but the vote was 2-2, with Alpert and Brody opposing the motion.

Therefore, Freeland Eddie affirmed, the motion had failed.

When Freeland Eddie next asked DavisShaw how soon she could bring to the board more information about a description of the Fruitville project for the MPO, DavisShaw told her that fall is the timeline on which staff is working.

Then Commissioner Shaw suggested separate votes: one on the rest of the proposed MPO list and one on the Fruitville project placeholder.

Alpert ended up making the motion calling for approval of all the projects except the one on Fruitville. Shaw seconded it, and it passed 4-0.

Subsequently, debate ensued about whether the commissioners should add a discussion of Fruitville Road to their special meeting agenda for March 15, when the focus is to be on the new form-based code. (Expected to be released to city staff on March 9, that code will be a comprehensive revision of the city’s zoning regulations.)

City Auditor and Clerk Pam Nadalini said she would be happy to add the Fruitville discussion to that agenda if that was the board’s desire.

Freeland Eddie objected to that proposal, however, saying, “I don’t think it’s appropriate …” Residents are anticipating just the form-based code discussion that night, she emphasized.

Finally, Alpert made the motion to put a Fruitville Road project on the MPO list, and Brody seconded it. The motion passed 3-1.

The other projects

During her presentation, DavisShaw offered details about the other projects on the priority list.

A graphic shows potential locations of roundabouts at City of Sarasota intersections along U.S. 41. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The primary emphasis, she noted, is the U.S. 41 corridor from University Parkway to the Orange Avenue intersection. “We’ve been looking for funds for [roundabouts for] individual intersections.”

For the 47th Street, she said, no funding is available.

The roundabouts at Myrtle Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way would be completed in one initiative, she continued. FDOT is in the project development and environment study (PD&E) phase for both, DavisShaw added.

For the proposed roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue, DavisShaw noted that FDOT has reached the 60% completion point in the design process and is pursuing that project under the Statewide Acceleration and Transformation (SWAT) process.

The roundabouts planned at Main Street and Ringling Boulevard also are in the PD&E phase, she said.

No money is available yet for the Orange Avenue project.

Staff also won city support for the Sarasota County project along Myrtle Street. That will include new lighting, sidewalks and bike lanes. (The County Commission last week approved that project as one of its top priorities.)

In the backup agenda material for the March 5 City Commission meeting, a staff memo said, “The City continues to support this, as a very high priority, and will work with the MPO and Sarasota County on this important multi-modal connection project.”

Among other projects on the city list are single-lane roundabouts at the intersections of Cocoanut Avenue and Boulevard of the Arts; Siesta Drive and School Avenue; and Ringling Boulevard and Pine Place.

Additionally, DavisShaw noted, the updated list for the MPO includes a request for the ability to install variable message signs to direct motorists to use alternate routes when a traffic accident or other incident has occurred in an area. The goal would be able to monitor traffic, she said, so the messages could go out as soon as the potential for increased congestion occurred.