Reconfiguration of traffic flow to three northbound lanes between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road wins approval of the City Commission

Sophisticated ‘HAWK’ crosswalk will be constructed at Ritz Carlton Drive and First Street, with traditional type of crosswalk put back in place at Fruitville Road

A smaller median has been under construction on U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota to accommodate three northbound lanes between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road. Rachel Hackney photo

After a presentation by Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) representatives and city staff, the Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously this week to approve a modified design for bayfront traffic that is expected to foster faster traffic flow and heighten pedestrian safety.

The concept will include three northbound lanes on U.S. 41 from Gulfstream Avenue to Fruitville Road, along with a specialized pedestrian crossing signal called a HAWK between Ritz Carlton Drive and First Street, as well as a regular southwest-to-southeast crosswalk at the intersection of Fruitville Road and U.S. 41.

Additionally, a third eastbound lane on Gulfstream Avenue will be restriped to give drivers the option of heading into downtown or turning left onto U.S. 41.

On Aug. 21, L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s District One secretary, and Keith Slater, traffic operations engineer for District One, showed the board members results of a study FDOT undertook of traffic flow on the U.S. 41 corridor between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road during an afternoon peak hour during the height of tourist season. The data showed that with three lanes giving drivers the option of turning north on U.S. 41, the average delay for a vehicle between Gulfstream and Fruitville was 61 seconds. With three northbound lanes from Gulfstream, plus the HAWK, plus the Fruitville crosswalk, Slater said, the average delay would be 117 seconds. With just the three northbound lanes and no crosswalks, he added, the average delay would be 55 seconds. With the three lanes and the HAWK only, the average delay would be 61 seconds.

“It became very apparent that [the third northbound lane on U.S. 41 is] needed,” Nandam said.

During the three to four months of prime tourist season, he pointed out, drivers experience significant delays if they want to travel from Gulfstream to Fruitville on U.S. 41. However, he continued, those delays are “pretty consistent” all year, just “not as heavy as [in] peak season, definitely.”

In an effort to respond to requests from residents and business owners on Longboat and Lido Keys, as well as St. Armands Circle — and city residents worried about pedestrian and bicycle safety in downtown Sarasota — Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie suggested the commissioners endorse the concept of the three turn lanes, plus the three northbound lanes on U.S. 41, plus both crossings. As Nandam had pointed out, that traffic pattern would be in effect only for about two years, until FDOT can get roundabouts constructed at the U.S. 41 intersections of 10th and 14th streets. FDOT still plans a roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41, Nandam and Slater said.

Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch also called for FDOT to lower the speed limit from 40 mph to 35 mph on the stretch of U.S. 41 between Fruitville and Gulfstream, as Slater had indicated it could, and for the department to install electronic “speed feedback signs” to show motorists their rate of travel in the affected area. Those feedback signs also were part of FDOT’s proposal.

A pedestrian begins crossing U.S. 41 at the Gulfstream Avenue intersection. Rachel Hackney photo

Moreover, FDOT plans markings on the road segments — and signs during tourist season — to direct motorists to move into the appropriate lanes according to their desired path of travel. “It’s all about providing information to motorists so they can make educated choices,” Nandam pointed out.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion incorporating both Freeland Eddie’s and Ahearn-Koch’s suggestions.

In response to a question about how long it would take for FDOT to complete the new traffic patterns and the crosswalks, Nandam explained that it will take about 16 weeks to obtain the equipment for the HAWK, though the firm handling the resurfacing project in downtown Sarasota only has six weeks left in its contract. FDOT staff will negotiate with that firm with the hope that it will stay on the job through the completion of the crosswalks, Nandam added. That would be preferable to the department, he indicated, instead of having another contractor come in after that project is complete to undertake the crosswalk work. “It could be close to six months by the time we are done.”

Pleas pro and con

A dozen speakers addressed the board during the Aug. 21 regular meeting. Among them, Mayor Terry Gans of the Town of Longboat Key and Andrew Vac, past president of the St. Armands Circle Association, urged the board to allow the three northbound lanes for traffic from Gulfstream to U.S. 41.

“The Circle had a hardship this past season,” Vac said, with businesses reporting revenue down 14% to 25%. Additionally, he pointed out, more storefronts are vacant than during the Great Recession. The reason, business owners believe, is that in the recent past, “people came to the Circle, shopped, ate, went to the beach, and when they left, they had to sit in a parking lot the whole time [heading back to their accommodations],” he told the commissioners.

“More lanes move more traffic,” Gans told the commissioners. More and more people are being attracted to the area, he said. “If we invite them here and they sit for an unreasonable time in traffic, will they return?”

An aerial view shows the intersection of Ritz Carlton Drive and First Street in downtown Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Yet the majority of speakers urged the board to act on behalf of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Roger Barry, a retired professor of urban planning at the University of Cincinnati and the chair of the Transportation Committee of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, said, “My neighbors and I are horrified” at the prospect of the prospect of three northbound lanes from Gulfstream to Fruitville with a narrow median separating them from the southbound lanes.

Malcolm McLeod, who told the board he and his wife recently moved to Sarasota, talked of his wife’s fears about pedestrian safety. “She has now refused to walk across [U.S.] 41,” he added. Although the city advertises its walkability, he continued, “we’re defeating the object by massing traffic on our roads.”

Then and now

Commissioner Hagen Brody had asked that the discussion about U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue be on the Aug. 21 agenda.

Given all the concerns about traffic flow between the barrier islands and downtown Sarasota, he said, he wanted to hear form city staff, from residents and from FDOT representatives, “so we can all get rowing in the same direction on this.”

FDOT has created this concept design for the corridor between Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue. News Leader photo

City Manager Tom Barwin explained that in October 2015, the commissioners on the board at that time agreed to work with FDOT on changes to the traffic flow between Gulfstream and Fruitville. The board’s decision, Barwin continued, was to support a median dividing the north- and southbound lanes in that corridor and the creation of a dedicated right-turn “slip” lane from northbound U.S. 41 onto Fruitville Road, so eastbound traffic would not have to wait on a traffic signal.

“The changes have not been fully implemented as designed,” Barwin pointed out. City staff had been “quite adamant” that a pedestrian island refuge be maintained between Ritz Carlton Drive and First Street, he noted, “because that is where so much of our pedestrian activity occurs.”

As this summer progressed, Barwin told the board, residents and city staff members noticed that the median between Ritz Carlton Drive and First Street “appeared to have been reduced significantly.”

An engineering schematic shows part of the FDOT plans for the U.S. 41 corridor between Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue. News Leader photo

Additionally, he said, it appeared that FDOT’s contractor was preparing to create three northbound lanes that would turn left onto U.S. 41 from Gulfstream Avenue and then continue to Fruitville Road. “That was beyond what was agreed upon at this table.”

Over the past week to 10 days, Barwin noted, city staff had been “involved in intense dialogue with [FDOT] in terms of what measures can be taken to ensure pedestrian safety.”

With three new hotels opening near downtown, city staff anticipates even more pedestrians in the Gulfstream-to-Fruitville corridor, he added.

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data show that one out of 10 pedestrians struck by a vehicle traveling 30 mph will survive, Barwin continued. At 35 mph, the survival rate is 50%, he noted, and at 40 mph, “one may survive.”

Then Nandam addressed the commissioners, explaining that the traffic patterns in the affected area will be in place on a temporary basis, given the planning for the roundabouts. The latter, he said, are “the critical feature [to] create a pedestrian-friendly environment” on any road corridor.

In 2015 and 2016, he continued, FDOT heard a lot of complaints about traffic backups involving the barrier islands during the height of tourist season. As a result, he said, staff began looking for interim measures to ameliorate the situation. FDOT decided to create the dedicated right-turn lane from U.S. 41 to Fruitville Road, and it eliminated the southwest-to-southeast crosswalk at U.S. 41 and Fruitville, he added, and those steps improved the traffic flow.

Because the resurfacing project underway already was being planned, Nandam continued, FDOT staff approached city staff about options for the Gulfstream-to-Fruitville segment of U.S. 41. Although the commission selected the option in October 2015 that Barwin had discussed, Nandam said, about two months ago, FDOT began getting requests again for a full third lane marked for northbound traffic on U.S. 41 from Gulfstream Avenue.

A still from an FDOT video shows pedestrians waiting to use a HAWK crosswalk. Image courtesy FDOT

FDOT staff made the decision to ask the contractor to reduce the width of the median on U.S. 41 between Fruitville and Gulfstream, Nandam pointed out, while discussions continued about the traffic issues. “You can put concrete on top of asphalt,” he noted, but it is more difficult to remove concrete after it has been put in place. With the smaller medians, he pointed out, the full third northbound lane could be created on U.S. 41.

Additionally, he said, “we found there is heavy pedestrian traffic by First Street … and a crosswalk is justified there.” FDOT was going to wait until the roundabouts were built at 10th and 14th streets to construct that, he added, but City Engineer Alexandrea Davis Shaw told FDOT staff that the crosswalk was needed as soon as possible.

The crosswalk also was desirable at Fruitville and U.S. 41, he continued, so FDOT began considering what would work best in terms of lanes for traffic flow.

With both the First Street and Fruitville Road crosswalks in place, Nandam pointed out, “we would have to have the third lane for traffic conditions to work.”

Then Slater showed the board schematics with the design for the three northbound lanes on U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road, with the outside lane ending in the slip lane for traffic turning east on Fruitville.

Another still from an FDOT video shows pedestrians waiting for the signal to cross the first segment of lanes at a HAWK crosswalk. Image courtesy FDOT

As for the crosswalks: One advantage with the HAWK, Slater pointed out, is that it is a two-stage crosswalk. After a person presses a button, traffic stops in the first set of lanes; then, the pedestrian pushes a button in the median to cross the other set of lanes, “which makes it more efficient for the cars and for the pedestrians,” he added. Traffic can flow in one direction after the person has completed the transit of that portion of the road.

In the effort to balance pedestrian safety, Nandam told Alpert, “there’s more interruptions to traffic.”

“Why is the Fruitville [crosswalk] necessary?” Commissioner Brody asked. “I don’t see people coming from the south, or from the north, crossing Fruitville at that point.”

“There’s a very popular pizzeria there on the west side of [U.S.] 41,” City Manager Barwin responded, “and we have an enormous amount of construction workers in the community.”