Majority of survey respondents called for keeping a signalized intersection in place
Even though the majority of respondents to a Sarasota County survey conducted in October opposed the idea, the County Commission voted unanimously this week to direct staff to proceed with plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key.
Public Works Department Director Spencer Anderson recommended the action at the end of his Dec. 8 presentation to the board.
Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion, and newly elected Commissioner Ron Cutsinger of Englewood seconded it.
Maio represents the southern portion of Siesta Key.
Maio said he believes the roundabout “will function real well.”
It took less than 18 minutes for Anderson’s presentation and the board vote.
Maio reminded his colleagues that, only about six months after he was elected to his first term in November 2014, staff of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) began talking about plans to improve the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection. At that time — in early to mid-2015 — the overwhelming response among Siesta Key residents was opposition to a roundabout, Maio continued. “That [viewpoint] seems to have moved a bit.”
He did ask Anderson about comments in an email the commissioners and Anderson received earlier that day from Siesta Key Association (SKA) President Catherine Luckner. Among those was what Maio characterized as “a pretty strong concern about how the pedestrian and bike traffic will move through this roundabout.”
Sidewalks will be connected outside the roundabout, Anderson replied; those will be “a few car lengths” from the structure.
In regard to bicyclists: Anderson explained that they will be directed away from the traffic flow in the roundabout, “so that they don’t actually interface with the vehicles in the roundabout.”
Further, Anderson noted, the design could incorporate HAWK pedestrian crossing signals, which persons activate. Those signals will stop traffic outside the roundabout, he added.
Then Anderson pointed out that two roundabouts are nearly complete on U.S. 41 at the 10th and 14th street intersections in the city of Sarasota. “It’ll be a great learning observation to see how pedestrians and vehicles and bicycles are all working together, in those new roundabouts,” Anderson said. HAWK signals have been incorporated in them, he told the commissioners.
Maio also asked for confirmation about what he called the “standard engineering theory” regarding roundabouts — that “the T-bone accidents at speed, that kill people, are dramatically reduced.”
Anderson responded that that is correct.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked whether a roundabout would in any way impede the operations of the firefighters-paramedics at Fire Station No. 13, which is located near the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection, or the Siesta Key Breeze trolley.
All drivers tend to stop when they see a fire truck with lights on, Anderson told Ziegler, so he did not anticipate any problems related to the firefighters’ ability to respond to calls. As for the trolley: Anderson explained, “The roundabout will be designed to handle all types of vehicles.”
Ziegler also asked about the potential of the roundabout design to incorporate other safety features, indicating that he would like to ensure that every feasible step is taken in the design to enhance safety for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.
“We will evaluate every option that’s possible there and rule them out one by one as the design moves forward,” Anderson said. FDOT has committed to paying for the construction, he continued, “as long as [the design] is reasonable …”
From what he had heard, Anderson told the commissioners, traffic backs up at times all the way from the Stickney Point Road drawbridge to the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road. “If that’s the case,” he added, “there’s going to be gridlock regardless of what the intersection improvement is. We can make adjustments in the design,” he pointed out, “for anything that we might feel is appropriate to consider.”
The county must complete the roundabout design by October 2021 for delivery to FDOT, Anderson said early on during his presentation. That expense is expected to be about $360,000.
Then, FDOT would construct the roundabout starting in the spring of 2022, in conjunction with its plans to resurface Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Lawn Way, which is one entrance to the Siesta Isles neighborhood from Midnight Pass Road, Anderson pointed out.
Although the county will be assuming authority over roads on Siesta Key, in exchange for FDOT’s taking control of River Road between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 in South County, Anderson explained that FDOT will continue maintaining the Siesta roads until it starts improvements on River Road in the summer of 2021.
“We’re pretty close to actually having the [road] transfer done,’ he said.
On Sept. 22, Anderson reminded the board members, after he provided an update about the proposed roundabout, they directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to ensure that staff would undertake greater public outreach to residents and business owners on Siesta Key and provide a report on those efforts.
On Dec. 8, Anderson noted that he had appeared at the Oct. 5 Siesta Key Association meeting, with about 40 members in attendance. The majority of people there who addressed the roundabout proposal, he continued, “were more in favor” of a signalized intersection than a roundabout.
Staff also created an online survey that was available to the public from Oct. 5-31, Anderson noted.
A slide Anderson showed the board said that of the 552 responses, 32.07% wanted no change at the intersection of Midnight Pass and Beach roads; 33.15% wanted a roundabout; and 29.89% sought an improved signalized intersection. He called that breakdown “pretty evenly split” among those three choices.
“If I had to do it all over again,” he said of the survey, he would have eliminated the “No Change” option.
The majority of the respondents — 68.55% — live on Siesta Key, according to a graph he showed the commissioners. Another 18.73% did not live on or near the barrier island, the graph noted.
Asked how often they travel on or to the Key, the majority of the respondents — 62.52% — marked the “Daily” answer. Another 16.82% chose “At least once a month,” while 12.07% marked “At least once a week.”
Further, the majority of respondents to that question — 41.09% — noted that they live on the island. The answer for travel on the Key with the second-highest number of responses — 26.3% — was “Recreation.” Another 18.3% of the respondents pointed to travel to restaurants or retail shops on Siesta.
Anderson also showed the commissioners a slide with information from FDOT about the advantages of a roundabout, compared to those of a signalized intersection. The advantages of a roundabout far surpassed those of a signalized intersection, by a count of 14 to 2.
His recommendation, Anderson told the commissioners, “is that we move forward with the roundabout. There is a substantial amount of public support.” Still, he acknowledged, “There’s not an overwhelming amount of public support.”
The unincorporated areas of the county already have more than 20 roundabouts, he added. “They are technically the better option for design, and we feel we can accommodate a majority [of the public concerns about the one proposed on Siesta Key].”
Responses to the board decision
Following the board’s decision this week, The Sarasota News Leader contacted the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the Siesta Key Condominium Council and the Siesta Key Association for responses.
Mason Tush, chair of the Siesta Chamber, told the News Leader in an email, “After reviewing the two options proposed for that intersection (one being the roundabout and a second option of a new traffic signal that would remove the ‘free flowing’ right turn lanes), the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors supported the roundabout.”
Noting that the Siesta Key Condominium Council (SKCC) represents 95 complexes on the island, Diane Erne, vice president of that organization, provided the following statement: “I am sorry to hear that, despite the County survey results (61.96% of Everyone and 67.5% of Siesta) indicating the public’s lack of support for a roundabout on Beach and Midnight Pass Road, the County Commission decided they knew best and approved the roundabout. The SKCC would certainly have sent out the survey to our members had we been asked. The good news is that the [commissioners] appeared to be listening to some of the concerns expressed by SKA President Catherine Luckner in her detailed communication with the BCC [Board of County Commissioners].
“I understand that these FDOT funds are earmarked for this specific purpose,” Erne continued. “Given the pressure on the County budget at this time, I can only hope that more pressing Siesta Key issues related to traffic congestion, bike and pedestrian safety are fully considered. Jason Collins, a BCC consultant, spent many hours working with Siesta Key organizations in an effort to improve safety for all who use our roadways. The BCC needs to consider his recommendations as it moves forward on this unpopular roundabout.”
During the Dec. 9 SKA meeting, Luckner talked about the roundabout decision, with about 40 members participating via Zoom. She pointed out that the nonprofit “got lots of compliments” from the commissioners for encouraging people to participate in the survey. Not only did the SKA put notice of that survey on its Facebook page, Luckner said, but it also sent emails to its members, encouraging them to answer the questions.
She then reviewed the survey options for the intersection: a roundabout, an improved signalized intersection, and no change.
“The truth was there really was never a ‘No Change’ option,” she added. “There was always the intention of FDOT to improve that intersection.”
Still, Luckner pointed out that about 67% of all the respondents voted for a signalized intersection.
What she emphasized in her Dec. 8 email to the county commissioners, she continued, “was that we want people to be safe,” as the island has so many people who walk and use bicycles, “and that is not a typical roundabout-friendly area” at the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road.
Nonetheless, Luckner said, she understood from Public Works Director Anderson’s presentation that staff would be working on a roundabout design with a variety of special safety features, including the HAWK pedestrian signals. She indicated encouragement from that discussion that safety for pedestrians and bicyclists will be a priority.