Variety of ideas given to staff to research as County Commission continues focus on easing traffic congestion and parking problems related to Siesta Public Beach

From a mobile app with real-time parking availability information to a water taxi from Phillippi Estate Park, staff to explore what might work

Siesta Key remains among the county’s most popular tourist destinations. File photo

With more than 1,000 comments having been submitted online, plus emails and the remarks of 14 speakers on Feb. 27, the Sarasota County Commission has asked staff to follow up on a number of ideas that potentially could ameliorate traffic congestion on Siesta Key.

As they discussed the idea of paid parking following the speakers’ comments, commissioners made it clear that unanimity does not exist for implementing such a program at Siesta Public Beach.

“I’m not sold on paid parking yet,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said. If the county did implement such a program, he added, taxpayers should be able to access the beach for free.

Commissioner Alan Maio concurred with the idea of free parking for county residents. “We cannot charge them …”

“I would support any program that’s fair to all residents of Sarasota County” and all county taxpayers, Commissioner Nancy Detert told her colleagues, as long as visitors still could have “a quality experience.”

Commissioner Michael Moran voiced concern about any program that would deter low-income residents, especially families, from visiting Siesta Public Beach. The board needs to talk about solutions for the traffic congestion, first, he continued, and then consider how to pay for them.

“I’d be in favor of paid parking,” Chair Charles Hines said, with the revenue allocated to solutions.

Traffic is at a standstill on April 3, 2018 at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41, where the proposed Siesta Promenade would be built. Contributed photo

The commissioners asked staff to investigate the following:

  • The process that would be necessary to construct a parking garage on the Key or possibly at Gulf Gate Mall, so people could leave their vehicles and then catch rides on the free Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley, whose service also would have to be expanded to make that possible.
  • The use of electronic message boards on Clark Road east of the Stickney Point Road intersection and on U.S. 41 both north and south of that intersection, to provide real-time information about whether spaces are available at Siesta Public Beach.
  • The details of creating a mobile app that would enable people to learn the number of parking spaces available in the Siesta Public Beach lot at any given time and an estimate of the travel time to the beach via various access points to the island.
  • The potential of establishing a water taxi service to Siesta Public Beach from Phillippi Estate Park, located at 5500 S. Tamiami Trail, which the county owns and where plenty of parking spaces are available, as Detert noted.
  • Implementation of a bike-sharing program for people parking off the island.
  • The potential use multiple areas of county right of way to allow the Siesta trolley to pull out of traffic as it loads and unloads passengers, so vehicles that have been following it can pass it.
  • The legality of facilitating the operation of privately owned electric vehicles that, speakers indicated, were far more abundant before the trolley was launched in March 2017.

During their discussion, commissioners did concur that if a paid parking program were implemented at the public beach, it would have to be free or inexpensive for county taxpayers, regardless of where the persons live.

Additionally, in light of public comments, they agreed that any revenue from a paid parking program would go toward measures to reduce traffic on Siesta — from expanding the trolley’s route north of Siesta Village to covering the cost of a parking garage, for examples.

The Feb. 27 workshop was a suggestion of Commissioner Nancy Detert in July 2018. She made it as the board received another update from staff on research, undertaken at the commission’s direction, on means of dealing with growing complaints about traffic and parking on the Key. Almost exactly a year earlier, in July 2017, the commission tasked staff with looking into a wide variety of ideas to help the board determine the best way to proceed.

Opportunities and constraints

Vehicles wait in line as the Stickney Point Road drawbridge opens. File photo

At the opening of the Feb. 27 workshop, Chair Hines acknowledged, “It’s a given that our population is growing … and that people have found Siesta Key and love our beach.” Yet, the constraints of the existing road network on the island — and the two drawbridges, on Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive — make some solutions impossible, he continued.

Not much vacant land on the Key or even off the island is available for parking garages, he added, and what is available “is very, very expensive.”

Nonetheless, Hines said, “It’s a human condition that we all want to drive our own car, bring our own cooler and go to the beach when we want to and have our own designated parking spot.”

During a presentation to the board, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR); Rob Lewis, the county’s governmental affairs director and interim director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT); and County Engineer Spencer Anderson provided a review of some of the past staff work on the issues and offered some new statistics.

Rissler explained that staff provided a forum on a county webpage for people to submit their comments in advance of the Feb. 27 workshop. From Jan.10 through Feb. 17 — the day the forum closed — 1,050 responses were counted, she said. Of those, 76.28% were from full-time Sarasota County residents; 17.17% were from part-time residents; and the remainder was from non-residents. “Could have been Manatee County; could have been Ohio,” she noted.

A graphic uses color coding to indicate where respondents to the online forum live. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The majority of the comments from county residents were tagged to the Siesta Key zip code, she added, as staff had requested that anyone filling out the form provide his or her zip code. Still, she noted “a big sampling from a variety of zip codes.”

In discussing mass transit options for the island, Lewis explained that two SCAT routes serve Siesta Key: Route 11, which circulates through the transfer station at the Westfield Siesta Key Mall on Siesta Drive and over to Sarasota Pavilion, as well as Siesta Key; and Route 33, a service provided from Cattlemen Road through the Amish and Mennonite community of Pinecraft to Siesta Key from December to April, which is the height of tourist season.

Route 11 operates year-round, seven days a week, while Route 33 runs Monday through Saturday.

Riders pay $1.25 per trip or $4 per day for the bus, Lewis pointed out.

From December 2017 through April 2018, Lewis noted, route 33 carried a total of 30,255 passengers. From January 2018 through January of this year, Route 11 had a total of 41,986 riders.

A graphic provides details about the mass transit service for Siesta Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In comparison, he continued, the free Siesta Key Breeze had 254,126 passengers from January 2018 through January 2019. The current contract for the trolley — which the commission approved last summer — costs $1.2 million a year, he said. Expanding the trolley service to the mainland was estimated about a year ago to cost $1.5 million annually, Lewis pointed out.

“The trolley, I think, is a really exciting, novel idea,” Commissioner Detert said, “and I have always supported it being free.”

The public remarks

Among the 14 people given 3 minutes each to address the board on Feb. 27 was Gene Kusekoski, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

The nonprofit sent the commissioners a letter, he noted, parts of which he read.

“From our perspective, the county must look at parking in the larger context of too many cars clogging area roadways today,” the letter said. “The public safety implications and challenges for residents trying to get to and from their homes here have been discussed at length.”

“We encourage a holistic, systemic approach toward solutions,” Kusekoski told the board. “It begins with a look at past changes.”

For example, Kusekoski pointed out, expanding the number of parking spaces during the renovations at Siesta Public Beach several years ago enabled more people to visit the facilities there. Yet, that has encouraged more people to drive to the Key.

The Midnight Pass Road crosswalks have lights that pedestrians may activate. File photo

Additionally, after the county completes a swap of River Road to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and takes over authority of State Road 758 and Stickney Point Road west of U.S. 41, Kusekoski asked that staff work on a means of synchronizing the pedestrian crosswalk signals on Midnight Pass Road between the Beach Road and Stickney Point Road intersections. The current situation, he explained, allows people to activate the signals at random, leading to the potential for traffic to have to stop “every few seconds,” as the SKA letter put it. “These backups can ripple up Stickney Point Road to U.S. 41,” the letter added.

(Later, during the board’s discussion, Commissioner Ziegler asked that staff look into that issue following the road swap, which is expected this spring.)

Finally, Kusekoski told the board that SKA members had not asked for free parking at the beach, if the board decides to implement a paid program there. They have sought only an affordable annual fee for residents, Kusekoski said.

Representing the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, past chair Mark Smith referenced a survey the Chamber undertook of its members about paid parking at the public beach. In tallying the results, he said, Chamber leaders found that 85% agreed that county property owners should not be forced to pay. Further, 84% said any revenue from a parking program should be used for purposes involving the Key, Smith said.

In researching the paid parking program at Fort Myers Beach, he continued, the Chamber estimates that if just one-third of the Siesta Beach public parking lot were designated a paid area for visitors, about $2 million would be generated a year. “That’s gross,” he said, acknowledging that the company handling the program would keep some of the money as payment for its services.

Ever since the Siesta Key Breeze was launched in March 2017, people have complained about having to wait behind it in traffic as it loads and unloads passengers on Beach Road and Midnight Pass Road. File photo

Siesta resident Mike Cosentino told the board that the fact that parking has been free at the beaches in Sarasota County has “always been a source of pride.” He urged the commissioners to consider “the lowest common denominator in society” — residents who would struggle to afford a payment for parking at Siesta Public Beach.

Other speakers were divided about the issue of requiring county residents to pay.

Jack Conway, for example, noted that people have to pay $5 an hour to park in Davidson Plaza in Siesta Village if they are not customers of businesses in that shopping center, and other businesses on the island charge for parking if people using their lots area not patrons. He favored a reasonable fee for the beach lot, he said, as long as the revenue was used for mitigating the island’s traffic issues.

On the other side of the issue, Linda Ferguson told the board she was opposed to even a $25 annual fee for county residents to park at the beach.

Nonetheless, she noted the “physical fights out in the [beach] parking lot” that she had witnessed, as people argued over spaces. “Honestly, they’re a little bit scary sometimes.”