Increase in expense and public safety worries had prompted staff to propose alternative
The Sarasota County commissioners made it clear in comments and then in a Dec. 11 motion: They want the county’s Public Works Department staff to find the extra $1.4 million necessary to complete improvements on the north side of Myrtle Street between Central Avenue and North Osprey Avenue.
Commissioner Michael Moran, who represents District 1 —including the project area — told his colleagues, “This is an absolute no-brainer for me.”
“I agree,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler added. “This community’s been waiting for some relief in that area … for a long time. I’d like to give it to them.”
Moran made the motion, and Ziegler seconded it.
Spencer Anderson, the county’s public works director, had recommended the commission stick with improvements only on the south side of Myrtle — sidewalks, bicycle lanes and lighting — because the expense of the work on the north side of the road has risen as a result of higher construction costs.
Anderson also pointed out that during a public meeting staff conducted at Booker High School in September, staff emphasized that plans long had called for the improvements just on the south side. Even though the design of the project on the north side had been completed, Anderson told the commissioners this week, “It wasn’t really an option that we proposed to [attendees] at that meeting.”
Anderson further noted his concerns about the “significant amount of industrial construction activity that’s on the north side of the road.”
If the county constructed sidewalks on the north side of Myrtle, he pointed out, that could result in safety issues for pedestrians.
He also talked about line-of-sight issues and problems with pedestrian connectivity “coming off North Orange [Avenue], Goodrich [Avenue] and Osprey [Avenue],” in regard to the north side of Myrtle.
Commissioner Nancy Detert disagreed with his assumptions.
“If [they] see a sidewalk, at least the [drivers of the] trucks are aware that there’s a sidewalk,” she said. “They have to be more observant [of pedestrian movements].”
“That road serves residential, commercial, recreation, schooling, workforce [and other needs],” Moran pointed out. “We’ll find the money for this.”
Anderson did suggest that the $1.4 million could be pooled from a variety of sources, including the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), gas tax revenue and county sales tax revenue allocated specifically to capital initiatives, such as the one designed for Myrtle.
Past and present
During his presentation, Anderson explained that the Myrtle Street Improvements Project was a result of discussions during a joint meeting of the Sarasota City and County commissions in April 2012. The initiative called for the improvements from U.S. 41 to U.S. 301, he added.
Constructing a sidewalk, bicycle lanes and lighting on the south side of Myrtle was seen as an interim project, Anderson continued.
Thanks to extra funding from the state, he said, “We’ve made some good progress [on that work].”
The improvements on the south side of Myrtle are complete between U.S. 41 and Central Avenue, he added.
Earlier this year, staff also finally concluded negotiations with the Seminole Gulf Railway for the replacement of the Myrtle Street crossing, as well as a new grade crossing signal system and drainage facility improvements, at a cost of $3.1 million, he noted. That work is underway, according to a county staff memo provided to the board in advance of the meeting.
The completion of that project is anticipated in early 2020, Anderson told the board.
Then, in late summer, the County Commission approved the construction of improvements from Central Avenue to North Orange Avenue. That should be completed in the fall of 2020, according to a staff memo provided to the board in advance of its Aug. 27 meeting.
Thanks to a funding partnership with FDOT, Anderson said on Dec. 10, the county also will work on the section of the street from North Orange Avenue to west of U.S. 301, with construction expected to begin in the summer of 2020.
Anderson showed the board members a graphic as he talked about the gaps in the sidewalk on the north side of Myrtle.
Staff plans a new pedestrian crossing at Osprey Avenue, he continued, as pedestrians headed both east and west on Myrtle tend to cross at Osprey Avenue to reach the north side of the street. A crosswalk already is in place at the intersection with U.S. 301, he noted.
“What I’ve seen with students and [other] pedestrians,” Anderson pointed out, “[is] they’re walking where they can on the south side of the road” where a sidewalk does not exist. Those crossing the street near the Osprey intersection, he continued, “typically … are going over to the new Wawa that’s at the corner of Myrtle and [U.S] 301.”
Because of the additional expense that would be associated with the improvements on the north side of Myrtle — and worries about pedestrian safety on that side of the street — Anderson said staff’s recommendation was for the commission to approve an extra $200,000 in an amended contract with consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates of Sarasota. Then the firm could update the design for the remaining segments of improvements on the south side of Myrtle.
Clarifying the comments
After Moran voiced his preference for pursuing the improvements on the north side of Myrtle, County, Administrator Jonathan Lewis sought clarification, because that was not the staff recommendation.
Moran responded that he did not want to give anyone the impression that $1.4 million is a small sum. However, he continued to advocate for the proposed improvements on the north side of the street.
Addressing Anderson, Moran said, “Worst-case scenario, you have sidewalks on both sides of the road?”
Anderson replied that that would be correct.
He understood Anderson’s concerns, Moran replied, “but that’s a community decision. … I would rather have more sidewalks than less. You never know, fast-forward 10 years from now … I’d rather overdevelop that area and make sure it’s properly positioned for future growth.”
“I understand it’s a million 4,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. “Nobody thinks that’s just money we’ve got in a little drawer somewhere in one of the commissioners’ offices.”
Still, Maio continued, he was thinking of the children and teens who walk along Myrtle. If they want to go to the Wawa, he pointed out, they are going to end up on the north side of the road. “I’m going to [come down] on the side of sidewalks on both sides.”
Chair Charles Hines noted that Sarasota County School Board regulations require that students who live within 2 miles of a school find transportation to that school other than a bus. Perhaps the School Board would help cover the extra $1.4-million expense, he added.
“This road has been long, long neglected,” Hines added, “and it’s time to fill in these [sidewalk] gaps.”
Then, referencing Moran’s comments about how the area might change in the future, Hines said, “There’s already a push” for the county to extend The Legacy Trail north to Manatee County. If that became a reality, Hines continued, sidewalks on both sides of Myrtle would become even more important as connections to the Trail.
“I’m so glad you brought that up,” Moran told Hines. “That is the huge cherry on top of this.”