Transportation issues among top concerns as hotel proposals await County Commission votes
As Siesta Key residents fight four hotel projects planned for the barrier island, the potential for worse traffic congestion has been among their primary concerns.
A number of people have contended that Siesta Public Beach’s two No. 1 rankings in less than 10 years — national news-making accolades accorded by “Dr. Beach,” Florida International University professor Stephen P. Leatherman — have increased the public’s desire to visit the barrier island. More tourists have meant longer lines of vehicles heading to the Key, especially during the height of the winter season, residents have stressed as they have shown county leaders photos illustrating their points.
In fact, over the past year, with COVID-19 concerns prompting even more people to seek outdoor recreation, Siesta residents and business owners noted bigger crowds, as well as visitors lingering long past Easter, which used to be the traditional time for the drop-off in tourism.
In early July, representatives of the Siesta Key Coalition, a nonprofit organization fighting the hotel proposals because they exceed existing zoning regulations, urged the County Commission to call for a comprehensive, island-wide traffic study. The speakers emphasized the need for such an analysis that would take into account the potential effects the hotels would have on Siesta transportation.
The commissioners did not accede to that request.
On Aug. 19, as the Sarasota County Planning Commission conducted the first hotel public hearing, Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, reminded the board members that a consulting firm undertook a Siesta traffic analysis a couple of years ago on behalf of the county. The findings were presented to the County Commission in May 2020.
About three months before the county commissioners heard about the study, Jason Collins, a representative of the ADEAS-Q, consulting firm, unveiled the key recommendations to an audience of Siesta Key Condominium Council members.
In introducing Collins during the May 2020 County Commission meeting, County Engineer Spencer Anderson referred to the Siesta transportation network, with emphasis, as “a constrained roadway.” Anderson added, “There’s very little room to work …”
Anderson has indicated staff and board reluctance to pursue the eminent domain process, through which the county legally could obtain private property that could be utilized to widen the roads, for example.
During an Aug. 24 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Wiggins expanded on responses she made to planning commissioners as they considered whether to endorse an eight-story, 170-room hotel planned on four parcels comprising slightly less than 1 acre between Beach Road and Calle Miramar.
Wiggins pointed out that the 2020 report released by ADEAS-Q of Tampa included a list of 18 recommendations for smoother and safer traffic flow on Siesta Key. A few of those are scheduled to get underway “fairly soon,” she noted. (See the related article in this issue.) A major one, the roundabout that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has in the works for the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection, is slated for construction in 2022.
Yet another significant step, Wiggins pointed out, will be the re-timing of traffic signals to respond to real-time situations on the island.
Wiggins provided the News Leader a copy of email exchanges on Aug. 18 and Aug. 19 — prior to the Planning Commission hearing — that focused on that initiative. She had asked fellow county Transportation staff members about the status of efforts related to the Advanced Traffic Management System “to address congestion management and … improve travel time reliability.”
Amjid Hussain, an engineer with the Traffic Engineering & Operations Division, responded, explaining that staff is in the process of upgrading traffic signal “cabinets” with equipment that is compatible with the county/FDOT Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS). Two of the three cabinets already had been installed. Additionally, he reported, the work on the necessary communication system and closed circuit TV system was underway. “In the next month or so,” he continued, “the signals will be connected to the ATMS system and staff will be able to [do the following]”:
- Monitor congestion and traffic patterns in real time.
- Adjust signal timing to minimize the impacts of traffic congestion in real time.
- Receive real-time alerts and reports from traffic signals.
- Address signal maintenance needs more efficiently.
During the following year, Hussain added, “depending on the budget,” staff plans to install traffic sensors, such as Bluetoad devices, “to get travel time data and improve travel time reliability.”
In December 2016, the News Leader learned, FDOT contracted with TrafficCast International to implement what the company called “the latest generation Bluetooth signal sensor detector technology” in areas of the state.
A March 2017 news release from TrafficCast explained, “BlueTOAD spectra [a dual-radio Bluetooth detection system] traces anonymous Bluetooth signals from mobile devices in vehicles to determine travel times, road speeds and vehicle movements, even when a phone is paired to the vehicle rendering it ‘undiscoverable.’ This increase in data provides the most accurate travel times on lower volume roads and during non-peak hours, while also providing for a much larger footprint for area-wide origin/destination studies.”
Returning to the topic of the consultant’s report, Wiggins told the News Leader on Aug. 24 that Transportation Planning staff members “are trying what we can,” given available funding. As money can be found, she continued, staff plans to implement what she characterized as the “low-hanging fruit” among the ADEAS-Q recommendations.
Some of the projects the firm identified “were very expensive,” she pointed out. Still, she stressed, staff has been working on how those could be implemented, as well.
‘Congestion all over Siesta Key’
On Aug. 19 Planning Commissioner Kevin Cooper — a former executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce — pointed to the “findings of fact” that he and his colleagues would need to consider in deciding whether to recommend that the County Commission approve the hotel proposed on Calle Miramar.
One of those findings, he noted, regards traffic flow.
During an exchange with county Planner Kirk Crane, who handled the staff presentation that evening, Cooper asked about the issue.
“There’s congestion all over Siesta Key,” Crane replied, prompting applause from the audience members filling the Commission Chambers at the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center. Almost every beach resort has congestion, Crane added. Although the county’s Transportation Planning staff is trying to alleviate the situation, Crane continued, “The problem will exist.”
Then Wiggins, the Transportation Planning manager, stepped to the podium.
One Sarasota County project priority that was submitted to the Sarasota Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in recent years, she said, was a comprehensive traffic study of the barrier islands, from Lido Key south to Casey Key. However, no funding was provided by the state for that initiative, she noted.
Nonetheless, Wiggins said, staff is taking a look at Siesta Key’s problems, from north to south.
At that point, Wiggins referenced the ADEAS-Q study, explaining much of what she reminded the News Leader on Aug. 24. “We need to do more follow-up analysis,” she told the planning commissioners.
She also talked about the upcoming signal-timing process that was detailed in the email she sent the News Leader.
Opposing views on ‘trip generation’ and beach communities’ traffic flow
Among the speakers who addressed the Planning Commission that evening, Bill Oliver, a registered traffic engineer in Florida, took his 3 minutes at the podium to explain that a beach community development “just does not fit the standard mold.” (Oliver is a consultant for the Siesta Key Coalition.)
Already, he emphasized, access to the island is not good.
From the north, drivers navigate Siesta Drive to reach the island from the mainland. On the south, drivers use Stickney Point Road. Both accesses have drawbridges operated by FDOT.
Along with such limited access to barrier islands, Oliver continued, islands have limitations on traffic circulation.
Moreover, he told the commissioners, traffic studies such as the one undertaken for the Calle Miramar hotel focus on morning and evening rush-hour traffic, but those high-volume periods are not typical in resort communities.
Midnight Pass Road, for example, has steady traffic flow throughout the day, Oliver said.
Further, he pointed out, 40% to 60% of drivers experience “congestion throughout the day.”
Oliver also emphasized that the hotel project team had not addressed county Future Land Use Policy 2.3.7. That says, “In established residential areas, incompatible land uses shall be discouraged if traffic is generated on abutting local streets in amounts that would substantially and adversely affect traffic flow, traffic control and public safety.”
The Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) manual that traffic engineers use in projecting traffic flow associated with hotels is focused on highly urban and suburban areas, Oliver pointed out, “not beach locations.” In other words, Oliver added, “The county’s standard way of looking at things [does] not apply.”
Later, in response to board questions, Wiggins pointed out that the ITE manual is used by engineers and transportation planners across the country, “when they are looking at hotels in general or other land uses.” Its counts are based on studies undertaken of various developments, she noted.
The county staff report on the proposed Calle Miramar hotel refers to the traffic study that the consulting firm Kimley-Horn undertook for the project team. That analysis predicted an extra 132 trips during the afternoon peak drive time, “and it is a given there will be traffic to and from the hotel throughout the day,” the staff report notes.
“The two concerns,” the report continues, “would be minimizing the number of trips traversing the neighborhood streets to the east and northeast, and the changing status of Calle Miramar to a road that is more commercial in nature, especially if the existing Siesta Key [Beach Resort and Suites] also expands to 170 rooms as proposed. (That is the third hotel project planned for the Key. Thus far, that application remains under staff review, according to the county’s Planning Division on Aug. 30. The remodeled structure would replace buildings dating to the 1950s, which stand on Ocean Boulevard and Calle Miramar.)
The staff report on the Calle Miramar hotel project further explained, “A potential 340+/- rooms, transient guests, and traffic generated by [the redeveloped Siesta Key Beach Resort and the Calle Miramar hotel], if both are approved, will have a distinct impact on the land use and transportation patterns on Calle Miramar and in the immediate area, an area already identified for traffic and public safety issues.”
Calle Miramar is a narrow residential street, public speakers emphasized to the planning commissioners.
However, Christopher Hatton, a registered professional traffic engineer and vice president of Kimley-Horn, who was among the project team members, downplayed the potential impacts of the hotel on island traffic. (Attorney William Merrill III had done so, as well, during the Jan. 15 county-required Neighborhood Workshop on the proposal.)
On Aug. 19, both Hatton and Merrill talked of the expectation that guests would not use their cars — or use them little — after arriving on the island.
Referencing Oliver’s comments, Hatton told the planning commissioners, “We evaluated two similar beach uses.” One of them was the Zota Beach Resort on Longboat Key; the other, the Hyatt Residence Club south of Stickney Point Road on Siesta Key.
Comparing the traffic for those facilities to the ITE predictions, he said, a hotel generates about half the amount of traffic as other commercial uses.
People who would arrive at the Calle Miramar hotel “have a wonderful walkability on the Key,” Hatton added.
He himself spent an entire weekend on Siesta, he noted, and he never used his car. The Siesta Key Breeze trolley is available for free, he pointed out, and other services provide transportation, including one called the Siesta Key Frog Hop.
Project team members also showed the planning commissioners a chart with data about the expected traffic associated with other uses that would be allowed under the existing Commercial General zoning standards on the hotel parcels. For example, the chart said, a combination of a sit-down restaurant with a “drinking place” and a convenience store would generate 187% more traffic than the hotel on the same site.
Another scenario, comprising a coffee/doughnut shop with a drive-through window, plus a variety store, would be expected to have 137% more trips associated with it than the hotel.
The News Leader did note that Merrill showed the planning commissioners a different chart than the one that was included in their agenda packet. Merrill’s chart had lower trip generation figures for those alternate uses than the one in that packet.