The policy roundabout: What’s the future of traffic?

Another new roundabout for the city, like the one at Ringling Boulevard and Pineapple — which opened in June — is just one of many transportation features the city commissioners are considering for the future. Photo by Norman Schimmel

In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an alien tour book author prepared to write a chapter on Earth. As he looked down from orbit, he mistakenly decided the automobile was the planet’s primary form of life. He renamed himself Ford Prefect so he would blend in.

The Sarasota city commissioners started a similar project Monday, Sept. 10, when they gave the green light for staff to proceed with a “Mobility Study.” Although it is doubtful staff members will rename themselves Dodge Charger or Chevy Volt, their mission is much the same as Ford Prefect’s – write a guide on how the city and its residents should deal with the automobile in the future.

Although dubbed a “Mobility Study,” this effort must accept a fundamental fact of modern urban life – a huge fraction of city land is devoted to the care, feeding, pampering and storage of cars. The largest room in many homes is the garage. Streets and parking lots are estimated to consume as much as 40% of all the city’s land area, and they comprise a huge percentage of the land under public ownership. Ford Prefect could be excused for thinking the car is the planet’s highest evolved life form.

Always thus

Mike Taylor, who is the Mobility Study’s champion, read a snippet from the city’s comprehensive plan: “The traffic problem, a serious one, must be controlled.” But it wasn’t the current comp plan; it was from the 1925 plan.

“The comprehensive plan is a statement of what we want to be,” said Taylor. “A mobility plan has the potential to reshape the city into the next century. Nothing is more important than the integration of land use and traffic.”

With that said, he turned the presentation over to consultants from Tindale, Oliver and Associates. Michael English said the study would be broken into five parts: mobility districts, complete streets, financial strategies, a downtown circulator and public engagement.

By a narrow 3-2 vote, commissioners approved moving ahead with the study in all its parts. Commissioners Willie Shaw and Terry Turner were in the minority.

“We’re running out of options to accommodate the automobile,” said consultant Demian Miller. The consulting firm representatives suggested the city look at something they called a “mobility fee,” which would be more flexible in addressing the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and riders of mass transit. Today’s road impact fees will only create more roads. “We’re looking at a multi-modal fee that could include financial and timing incentives, or reduced fees for specific locations and the type of development,” said Miller.

Pasco County recently imposed such a fee, which the county will waive for areas and types of development it wants to encourage. “They have a transit-oriented development zone,” said consultant Bill Oliver. “It is an impact-fee-free zone and is generating some developer interest.”

The current method of assessing impact fees was turned on its head by the Florida Legislature this spring. During an overhaul of the Department of Community Affairs, the legislators also stripped out the requirement for “concurrency,” which required a builder to pay for the infrastructure improvements demanded by the additional traffic their buildings would create. Developers hated concurrency, because it could add millions to the cost of a project through the requirement to include road improvements on public land.

If local government wants to keep the concurrency requirement – a key linchpin of impact fees – it must include them in a comprehensive plan. And that opens up an entirely different set of issues: In the absence of state guidelines and regulations, how will local governments justify the dollar amounts charged?

“Is this over-reach from Tallahassee?” asked Miller. “We won’t know until it is challenged in court.”

The study will go public later this year with a website full of information and public meetings in neighborhoods.

Going round and round

Part of the Mobility Plan calls for a re-examination of a “downtown circulator.” The city used to have one – called a streetcar system – but that came unglued in the 1950s. Later, the city funded free trolleys as people-movers. Most recently, electric vehicle operators have operated for tips.

The plan will look at streetcars again. One line would run from east-to-west from the bayfront to near Shade Avenue. A shorter north-south route would run from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to Selby Gardens.  The cars would be electrically powered by overhead wires. A second option would be “rubber-tired,” using some form of bus or trolley.

“Which streets? What are the capital costs? Where are the revenues? What is the business model?” asked consultant Michael English. “Our preliminary findings? You have a diverse mix of uses with commercial and cultural activity in your urban center. A downtown circulator would certainly help.”

On the topic of going in circles: After approving the mobility study, the City Commission unanimously approved looking at another traffic roundabout at the intersection of Orange Avenue and Charles Ringling Boulevard. It would be the third roundabout on Ringling, going east.

City Engineer Alex DavisShaw said the signals at the intersection need to be replaced (from overhead wire to mast-and-pole construction). That project would cost up to $300,000, she said. Another roundabout could be built for $500,00 to $600,000. “Cursory inspection says it would work very well as a roundabout,” she said.

All the costs were cursory estimates because she did not want to commit her staff to looking any further without commission approval.

The construction of the two new roundabouts along Ringling, at Palm and Pineapple, caused significant traffic and business disruption during last year’s tourist season. Nancy Krongold, the proprietor of Nancy’s Bar-B-Q on Pineapple, urged caution. “Our concern is about the very chilling impact the road closure had on our business and Burns Square,” she said. “I would urge you to do whatever you can to mitigate the road closure.”

Krongold can rest a little easier knowing funding for the project is at least five years away, according to DavisShaw.