Sarasota City Commission weighing options for permanent right-turn lane from U.S. 41 onto Fruitville Road

A Florida Department of Transportation resurfacing project scheduled for June 2016 calls for encompassing the redesign for bayfront traffic patterns until roundabouts are constructed in about five years

Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw. News Leader archive photo
Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw. News Leader archive photo

With the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) having provided three options for creating a permanent right-turn lane from northbound U.S. 41 onto eastbound Fruitville Road, the Sarasota city commissioners are taking some time to observe traffic in the area and weigh how best to proceed.

That consensus decision of the board members came after a Sept. 21 presentation by City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw. It included a desire to obtain more information about the signage FDOT can provide in the affected area and whether the state department can undertake a public information campaign about the changes.

“We need to see it from every angle,” Mayor Willie Shaw said of the traffic patterns from the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 to the intersection of U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road. “I couldn’t really make a truly intelligent decision … without going back out … and looking at this.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” City Commissioner Liz Alpert told Shaw. “We are not traffic engineers.”

Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell pointed out that more of the community’s seasonal residents already are arriving, so it would be better to hold off on a decision for as long as possible, enabling the city commissioners to observe heavier traffic through the area as a result of the snowbirds’ return.

DavisShaw said FDOT would like to bid out the project in December, so a scheduled resurfacing project, which will encompass the work, can begin in June 2016. She and City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners he and DavisShaw would work with FDOT to ascertain the latest time the city commissioners could choose an option. However, DavisShaw indicated it probably would be necessary for the board to reach a consensus this month.

In an Oct. 1 telephone interview, DavisShaw told The Sarasota News Leader she plans to make her next presentation on the project during the board’s Oct. 19 regular meeting. She said she still is waiting on answers from FDOT about the signage and the public information campaign. “They’ve been real responsive,” she pointed out of FDOT staff members. However, given the size of the district that includes Sarasota, she noted, it can take them a while in some cases to answer every question.

Handling the traffic

Sarasota City Engineer Alex DavisShaw. News Leader archive photo
Sarasota City Engineer Alex DavisShaw. News Leader archive photo

As DavisShaw pointed out in her Sept. 21 presentation, FDOT has heard concerns from residents about the backup of traffic on the Ringling Bridge during the peak tourist season. Background information she provided to the board in advance of the meeting noted that FDOT travel time measurements during season this year determined that some trips from St. Armands to the U.S. 41/Fruitville intersection took two hours. As a result, the memo continues, “FDOT developed a short-term improvement to see if it successfully improved the situation and it did.” That was a temporary right-turn lane from northbound U.S. 41 to eastbound Fruitville Road.

DavisShaw also reminded the commissioners that FDOT has been working with the city for a number of years on the Bayfront Connectivity Plan, which “does call for a number of roundabouts,” including ones on U.S. 41 at Fruitville Road and at Gulfstream Avenue. Additionally, the plan will incorporate a median between the roundabouts — what is referred to as an “urban boulevard,” DavisShaw noted — and a pedestrian crossing at First Street.

The background information she provided to the city commissioners adds, “We expect to have more details on these projects, rough cost estimates and timelines in the next few months. However, construction of these projects is at least five years off.”

Further, DavisShaw explained to the board on Sept. 21, FDOT representatives have learned that the order in which those roundabouts are constructed “is pretty important.” The structures can be built at the same time, or the one at Gulfstream can be completed first, she continued. If the one at Fruitville were constructed first, DavisShaw said, “We could have some traffic backups through Gulfstream.”

The options

In explaining the options, DavisShaw pointed out that FDOT representatives recently held a public meeting on the issue. Among the comments they heard was a desire to keep the median open at North Palm Avenue. However, she noted, the roundabouts would eliminate that anyway.

Furthermore, DavisShaw said, “We’ve actually had quite a number of vehicular incidents along that corridor, so the Department of Transportation is not willing to consider that as one of their options.”

A City of Sarasota graphic shows car crash data for the section of U.S. 41 encompassing the Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue intersections. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A City of Sarasota graphic shows car crash data for the section of U.S. 41 encompassing the Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue intersections. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

A graphic in DavisShaw’s memo to the board shows 323 car crashes were reported on U.S. 41 from just south of Gulfstream Avenue to just north of Fruitville Road between September 2005 and September 2015. Almost 150 of those were rear-end collisions. Only six pedestrian and bicycle crashes were reported in that area during the same period of time.

Another point that elicited considerable concern during the public meeting, she continued, was how pedestrians would cross U.S. 41 with the changes, though, she added, “I think that there was a misunderstanding when [FDOT representatives] said there would be a traffic median or barrier between the two directions of traffic.”

She believes people thought the proposal called for a tall barrier, but the plans include a paved area “more like a mountable curb about 4 inches [high] instead of a 6-inch curb you normally see,” she noted.

Both options presented to the public called for extending the right-turn lane on U.S. 41 south to Gulfstream Avenue. The first plan calls for narrowing the median to 4 feet in width as it approaches Gulfstream, with 10-foot-wide traffic lanes.

This option for the right-turn lane configuration shows a narrow median. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This option for the right-turn lane configuration shows a narrow median. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to concerns about how tight the traffic would be, she said, FDOT has modified that proposal. It would move the curb back a bit on the west side of U.S. 41, adjacent to the Ritz-Carlton, which also would mean having to relocate some of the palm trees on the hotel side of the street, she said. The median would be 7 feet wide, she added.

This option shows the wider median on U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This option shows the wider median on U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“That’s plenty of room for somebody to stand, I would think,” Alpert replied of the 4-foot width.

“I think there’s enough room to stand,” DavisShaw said, “[but] if cars are moving, it’s not very comfortable [for the pedestrian].”

Those trees could be relocated to a parcel on the southeast corner of Fruitville Road and U.S. 41, next to the site of the planned Embassy Suites hotel, DavisShaw noted.

A new, third option calls for shortening the right-turn lane — similar to the current situation — keeping the wider median and not removing the trees.

With the shorter turn lane in place now, she pointed out, FDOT has shown that traffic queues up for that lane all the way back to Gulfstream.

City Manager Tom Barwin said the scenario of the right-turn lane extending from the Gulfstream intersection to the Fruitville intersection would create a “chute-like effect.” City officials have to be concerned about the potential impact on pedestrians, he said, especially with the 250-room hotel planned for the Fruitville/U.S. 41 intersection.

Because he lives in that vicinity, Barwin continued, he has been able to observe the traffic. “The big improvement is having the right-turn lane and going onto eastbound Fruitville,” he added, even if the turn lane is only two blocks long.

What FDOT is not giving the city a choice on, he continued, is the median. The department “is putting [that] through all the way from Fruitville to Gulfstream,” he told the board.

Nonetheless, FDOT has agreed to signage warning motorists that the area is a pedestrian zone, Barwin said.

When she visited Seattle recently, Commissioner Susan Chapman told her colleagues, she saw outlines of people painted on the streets in the vicinity of pedestrian crosswalks, “and people seemed to be paying attention to that.” In some places, the outlines even showed a person holding a child, she noted, adding that she had taken photos of some of the outlines on her smartphone.

“I am sure that they would be open to suggestions,” DavisShaw said of FDOT representatives. She asked Chapman to send her the photos so she could pass them along to the FDOT district secretary for Sarasota County.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said she envisioned flashing signage to alert drivers that they are in a pedestrian zone, similar to the flashing signs in school zones. Eddie also asked whether FDOT would conduct a media campaign to educate people after the changes are complete. If not, she suggested the city commissioners discuss allocating funds to such an undertaking.

DavisShaw responded that she would check on that with FDOT.

Mayor Shaw pointed out that visitors should be the focal point of a media campaign, because full-time residents learn how to get around in the city. “We’re dealing with tourist people who haven’t been here before.”

Public comments

Only one member of the public addressed the City Commission about the proposals during the Sept. 21 discussion. “I thoroughly support most of [the plan],” Kafi Benz told the board, noting she had participated in FDOT workshops on the right-turn lane options.

However, she cautioned the commissioners, “the proposal’s been made by people who don’t live here. Palm Avenue is a primary street in the city of Sarasota, just as prime as Main Street in the design of your city.” Palm leads to a major parking garage, entertainment and shops, she pointed out.

“I would urge further consideration and think about retaining the configuration that exists right now,” she added. With the seasonal residents gone, she continued, the right-turn lane is “scantily used.”

As the commissioners weighed the options, Mayor Shaw told them, “This is being done by someone in Bartow or Lakeland, and we’re boots on the ground here ….”

Chapman added that she attended the recent FDOT workshop. “I know the people from St. Armands and Longboat Key want to move traffic faster,” she said, “but … we’re focusing on multi-modal transportation at the same time.”

Looking south on U.S. 41, the Gulfstream Avenue intersection is ahead on the right. News Leader archive photo
Looking south on U.S. 41, the Gulfstream Avenue intersection is ahead on the right. The photo was taken prior to the beginning of construction of The Vue on the northwest corner of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. News Leader archive photo