Traffic lights may soon become a rarity along a three-mile bayfront stretch of U.S. 41 as Sarasota drivers become acquainted with a different kind of traffic control.
Two multi-lane roundabouts on U.S. 41, at 10th and 14th streets, are close to fruition, with $11 million in funding already set aside and awaiting a green light for construction that could start as early as 2014. This pair of roundabouts would be the first two in a $100 million network that calls for eight additional circular intersections to replace traffic lights along the bayfront — a total of 10 roundabouts within a three-mile stretch of U.S. 41.
Proponents say the chain of roundabouts will do more than just slow traffic. They say they will help keep tourists downtown, add lush landscaping and greenery along the roadway, help spur long-awaited redevelopment on the North Trail and, most importantly, make it easier for people to cross from downtown to the bayfront.
Although advocates are trying to fast track the projects, some of the roundabout resistance has not faded. Opponents worry that the city is rushing toward roundabouts before the impacts to motorists and pedestrians are known.
The network of bayfront roundabouts would spread into downtown streets where drivers would have to slow to circle through smaller roundabouts at intersections such as Orange Avenue and Main Street. Three smaller, single-lane roundabouts have already been constructed downtown.
In total, 15 roundabouts are in some phase of the planning process. Downtown, three roundabouts have been built; a roundabout at Main Street and Orange has received funding; and an additional roundabout has been proposed.
On U.S. 41, three roundabouts have received funding; three have received partial funding — from the city and state — and four additional roundabouts have been proposed.
At a Florida Department of Transportation public hearing scheduled to occur sometime before Christmas, residents will get a chance to weigh in on the first two roundabouts planned for 10th and 14th streets.
In the meantime, members of the roundabout advocacy group US41 Momentum are gathering support for the entire network of roundabouts. They’ve met with city and county commissioners, as well as neighborhood associations and, more recently, City Manager Tom Barwin. But Rod Warner, a Sarasota resident and member of US41 Momentum, thinks the greatest motivator for its vision will be experiencing the roundabouts firsthand.
“We believe once 10th and 14th are open and the public sees how smoothly it is working and how much of an improvement it is with the greenery and aesthetics, that will create momentum,” Warner said.
City Commissioner Terry Turner, an advocate of the city’s connectivity plan, ensured that the roundabout projects were a funding priority and said the first pair will be a litmus test for the grander roundabout vision. Turner said that the intersections at Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 and Fruitville and U.S. 41, in particular, handle a greater flow of traffic, and he would like to see how the pair of roundabouts a little further north work before construction starts on the proposed circles at the busier intersections.
“I’m not comfortable doing those other roundabouts until we see how those work at 10th and 14th,” Turner said. “I think they will work, but I want to see how those work on the ground.”
Turner cites a study that shows that the circles slow motorists’ speed but keep them headed to their destination in the same amount of time, because drivers are constantly moving as opposed to stopping and starting.
The study showed that a motorist heading from Longboat Key to Sarasota Memorial Hospital would lose about two seconds if roundabouts, as opposed to traffic lights, were in place, Turner said.
The roundabouts also result in lower carbon emissions, safer crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists, more space for landscaping and lower speeds, Turner said.
A picture of $100 million
Turner hopes the two roundabouts between 10th and 14th streets will spur long-planned redevelopment efforts in that area.
“We won’t be able to redevelop the North Trail as long as it is an unpleasant place to be and traffic goes by at 50 mph,” Turner said. “We have to change that.”
Conceptual plans illustrate a wide expanse of landscaped median before and after the roundabouts, a wide sidewalk on the east side of the road and a multi-use sidewalk parallel to the west side of roadway.
The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization has set aside a total of $11 million for the first two roundabouts in its 2012 Transportation Improvement Program, including $4.4 million in city funding to pay for right of way purchases.
In the long run, the $100 million cost is an investment, Turner said.
According to Turner, the $100 million price tag is comparable to the cost of maintenance that would be required on U.S. 41 if the traffic signals were left as they are over 25 years.
In addition to the first pair of roundabouts on U.S. 41, four others on the major north-south thoroughfare have received partial or complete funding.
So far, about $8 million in city funding, collected from impact fees, is earmarked for the roundabout planned at U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road. The developer of the now-defunct Sarasota Bayside project also transferred land to the city that will be used to construct the Fruitville roundabout.
US41 Momentum’s more ambitious goal is to foster an accelerated construction timeline that would minimize the impact of construction delays for the roundabouts at Sixth Street, 10th Street, 14th Street and Fruitville Road. That effort would require two things: compressing the FDOT construction calendar for those major roundabouts so that they are built within the 2014-2015 fiscal year and motivating city officials to borrow the additional money needed from the state to speed up the work. In that case, the FDOT would return the borrowed funding back to the city.
The ‘R’ word
Over the past few years, former Longboat Key Mayor Lee Rothenberg, along with other officials on Longboat, protested the chain of roundabouts, in particular the roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
“There is a significant amount of traffic that goes through that intersection and goes south,” Rothenberg said. “And what Longboat people have been scared to death of is that a roundabout there will slow down traffic and cause problems for people trying to get to the South Trail.”
Rothenberg is also concerned about how pedestrians would have to cross the roundabouts. He said while was mayor he experienced a few debates with Sarasota officials who were proponents of the roundabouts.
“We’ve gone ’round and ’round,” Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg worries that the roundabouts on 10th and 14th streets will clear the way for the other eight proposed on U.S. 41, one of which is already fully funded.
“You are opening the door to another roundabout every quarter-mile,” Rothenberg said.
But Warner points to Clearwater, where, after a multi-lane roundabout was installed, many of the same residents who initially opposed the project eventually voiced support for additional roundabouts in the city. That roundabout was one of the first of its size in the United States.
“They began petitioning City Hall for more,” Warner said.
And not all Longboat Key residents oppose the roundabouts. John Wild, a former Longboat Key Planning and Zoning Board member, said he was skeptical at first. As a former mayor of Wildwood, Miss., he was involved in the effort to construct a roundabout there but was prepared to have it removed if it didn’t work.
“It was a split vote, and as mayor, I said we should go for it,” Wild said. “And I think I made the right decision, because there have not been any accidents there. It hasn’t caused any problems at all there.”
Warner also said he has spoken with tourists at the Sarasota Farmers Market. When he tells them about the city’s vision for roundabouts, some have asked, “You mean you are just now doing these?”
And, as far as the roundabouts causing issues for pedestrians, Warner and other advocates are also pushing for a pedestrian-friendly crossing on U.S. 41 between Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue. That crossing would be built directly between two roundabouts, thus, motorists would be traveling slowly enough to give tourists leaving the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, for instance, a chance to cross safely. The crossing, they say, would be another aspect of the overall vision for connectivity.
“Right now, you take your life in your hands when you try to cross there,” Warner said.
As city and state officials pull together the necessary funding and the planning process continues, the presence of roundabouts is looking more like a reality.
“When we say ‘proposed,’ we don’t mean this is just an idea,” Turner said. “This an ongoing effort that started five years ago, and assuming the sequence of city commissioners continues to support this project, it will go on.”
Red - Already built
Green - Funded
Yellow - Partially Funded
Blue - Proposed
Pink - Pedestrian Crosswalk
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