The Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA) met Monday night at the Sarasota Garden Club to discuss the future of Sarasota County's roadways.
Monday night's discussion featured a panel of three experts on roadway safety and design, focusing their remarks on the future of a key stretch of U.S. 41, which runs along the city of Sarasota bayfront, including the frequently gridlocked intersections with Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road.
Michael Lasche, a bike and pedestrian safety advocate who has been pushing for safer roadways since 1985, led off the discussion by focusing on the importance of improving the "walkability" of Sarasota's urban areas, citing increased property values, roadway safety and quality of life improvements as the primary benefits.
"Walkability means less sprawl, more safety … it's a livable street environment where all of life's necessities are within walking distance," Lasche said.
Lasche's comments set the stage for the focus of the evening's discussions — a series of 10 proposed roundabouts along the U.S. 41 corridor (referred to as the Sarasota U.S. 41 multimodal corridor) running from the Sarasota bayfront north to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Rod Warner, member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Citizen Advisory Council, and city of Sarasota City Engineer Alex DavisShaw presented the plans to the approximately 30 residents attending Monday night's meeting.
Warner advocated for an accelerated move to replace the intersections of U.S. 41 with Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road with roundabouts. He claimed frequent traffic blockages at the two sites could be alleviated by roundabouts, citing a roundabout in Clearwater Beach (which, by handling 58,000 cars a day is the most heavily trafficked roundabout in the U.S.) as a case study in how roundabouts can alleviate frequent traffic congestion and improve pedestrian safety — and improve "walkability."
The Clearwater Beach roundabout was a $12 million project, which transformed the intersection connecting Clearwater Beach Island to the mainland into a two-lane roundabout.
Warner said the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue maxes out at about 41,000 cars a day, below the Clearwater Beach roundabout's tally. Warner also touted the safety record of American roundabouts, referring to the fact that there has never been a pedestrian fatality at a roundabout in the U.S. — a claim that has not been independently verified.
In reference to the Clearwater Beach roundabout, Warner also cited the dramatic reduction in pedestrian accidents at the intersection, noting that the year prior to the roundabout's completion there were 17 fatalities at the site, compared with none the year after.
DavisShaw highlighted another challenge for the city of Sarasota, which factored into the roundabout discussion — how to best improve traffic flow through the U.S. 41 multimodal corridor while simultaneously improving downtown Sarasota's connectivity to the bayfront.
DavisShaw outlined the basics of Sarasota's Bayfront Connectivity Plan, part of the Downtown Master Plan 2020, which she said was "designed to increase the walkable connectivity between downtown and the bayfront," adding: "It's not just about traffic flow, but about crossing pedestrians as well."
The 10 roundabouts proposed for the U.S. 41 multimodal corridor have a price tag of $60 million, of which about $25 million has been accounted for through grant money. The remainder will come from federal and state funding as well as local impact fees. Although the majority of the project is under FDOT control and, therefore, subject to years of regulatory delays, the U.S. 41 intersections at Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road are not federal projects and can be completed on an expedited timeframe by sidestepping some of the federal red tape. According to Warner, local control of the Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road roundabouts means the projects might be complete before the 2017 World Rowing Championships, which will be held at Nathan Benderson Park in north Sarasota County and are anticipated to draw more than 40,000 visitors to the area.
Event planners and area tourism industry representatives have been pushing to alleviate gridlock along transportation routes from the site of the competition to area tourism hotspots such as Siesta Key and St. Armands.
"The Gulfstream Avenue intersection is the gateway to Longboat and St. Armands; it's the gateway to our community," said Cathy Antunes, CONA vice president. "We have to ask ourselves, 'Are we providing a world-class experience for our residents and our visitors?'"
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