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Opinion
Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 2 years ago

A narrower Fruitville? Ugh

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One of the city’s critical thoroughfares is already pretty calm. What it needs is more capacity to seamlessly move east-west traffic, not less.

It always seems so incongruous, incomprehensible and so unimaginable that you can’t come up with any other word than “bizarre.”

This is the city of Sarasota government, of course. And in this particular case, we’re referring to the city’s apparent and nonsensical determination to narrow two blocks of Fruitville Road downtown from four to two lanes — without, and this is the important part, provisions to address the backups and lack of free-flowing traffic that already exists.

It’s part of City Manager Tom Barwin’s commitment to “traffic calming” and this utopian vision of Sarasota being the ultimate walkable, pedestrian, eco-friendly, urban cultural city.  

What is there to calm on that stretch of Fruitville anyway? Go there on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It’s at a standstill.

Normally, when you think of “traffic calming,” what comes to mind is a road system on which motorists are traveling too fast for the surrounding environment and need to be slowed.

Take South Orange Avenue, for instance, the portion of that street that bisects the residential neighborhoods between Mound and Webber. It’s a long straightaway through a residential neighborhood, quite tempting for motorists to gas it far beyond the speed limit. So you can understand why the residents near there want speed bumps to deter  speeding.

Now let’s consider Fruitville Road. It has plenty of traffic-calming mechanisms — stop lights at every block. But more important, Fruitville is the most traveled and direct throughway for thousands of motorists and commercial vehicles to go to and from downtown, Longboat Key, St. Armands Key, Lido Key, Bird Key and Coon Key to Interstate 75 every day. And, above all, it’s an evacuation route. 

In an ideal traffic-management world, Fruitville Road should (and could) serve as a multi-lane, commercial throughway that allows motorists to travel from the barrier islands and downtown to the interstate with the fewest stops possible.

The need for such a roadway is overwhelming. Yet City Manager Barwin appears oblivious to, or is intentionally flicking his nose at, reality. We’ve watched what seems to be an obsession with making the urban core pro-pedestrian and pro-bicylists and anti-car.

And Barwin’s ammunition is the proliferation of new apartments north of Fourth Street in and around the Rosemary District. He envisions (and hopes for) their occupants constantly walking to and from their apartments to Main Street restaurants and entertainment. So he sees the current state of Fruitville as a danger zone that will inhibit and threaten that pedestrian utopia.

At the same time, however, flip the scenario. Sure, there may be a lot more apartment-dwelling pedestrians in the near future. But think of this: There are 1,000 condominiums, 1,000 apartments and 1,000 hotel rooms under development near downtown. Each one of those units, in all likelihood, will have a car attached to it. And every one of those car owners at some point likely will end up on Fruitville Road — adding to Fruitville’s already heavy traffic. 

And while we’re at it, let’s pile on more. Barwin in his 2016-2017 budget message to the City Commission made reference to the “important work of rebuilding our aging infrastructure …  so vital to serving our year-round and seasonal residents, as well as the 3 million visitors [emphasis added, Ed.] who discover or return to Sarasota each and every year.”

What has been the overwhelming public outcry for the past two years? Fix the traffic backups. The issue is capacity. More of it is needed, not less.

Surely there are sensible alternatives to narrowing Fruitville and addressing the issues of free-flowing traffic and increased pedestrian walkability. 

One might be what is used in Lee County — a toll-operated, raised flyover that allows cars to travel without stopping from U.S. 41 to U.S. 301. Or what about enclosed, pedestrian bridges with escalators?

Or what about some market-based thinking here? Is the demand for bike lanes and sidewalks so much higher than the demand by car users for free-flowing roadways?

If City Hall operated like a business — meeting the greatest market need — the City Commission and city manager would be thinking more of expanding road capacity than shrinking it.

Major League mistake

It’s so easy to justify — when it’s other people’s money.

Sarasota County commissioners are considering spending $21 million of tourist-tax collections to “invest” in a stadium complex in North Port for the Atlanta Braves. 

That’s on top of the $31 million commissioners plopped into renovating Ed Smith Stadium in 2009 to bring the Baltimore Orioles to Sarasota for their 16 annual spring training games.

It’s nice to have so much money to throw around.

As always, whenever these chases for a major league team surface, it’s like a rite of spring. The tourism and economic development directors flash all their statistics about economic impacts and multipliers and that these teams bring in new tourists who weren’t spending their leisure dollars here previously.

But here are two interesting factoids from the county’s data crunchers: The Sarasota Observer reported Sarasota County estimated Ed Smith Stadium had an economic impact of $51.7 million from non-local sources in 2015-16. That figure is 1.8% of the overall $2.8 billion annual economic impact of tourism in Sarasota. A sliver.

Another oft-used justification: Officials frequently note that state and local laws restrict the spending of tourist-tax collections on tourism-related activities and projects. That’s one reason why counties invest so much in sports monuments that sit empty 10 months of the year. 

Perhaps there should be discussions among counties and state lawmakers on how tourist-tax dollars can be used. Practically every county in Florida is desperate for additional road capacity and finding ways to pay for it. Or what about beach renourishment? Florida’s beaches are far bigger and year-round draws for tourism.

Another point too many public officials refuse to accept when looking at the impressive renderings for a new stadium: You would be hard pressed to find a reputable economist anywhere who will swear on the Bible that subsidizing any professional sports team or its stadium provides a profitable payback for taxpayers. And here’s one hint on why that is so: Money spent on spring training games is leisure money. If it’s not spent on spring training, it would be spent on another leisure activity. It’s not new, additional money added to the economic pot. 

It will be another deflating disappointment to see North Port and Sarasota County elected officials fall for the allure of a baseball stadium as an economic engine for North Port. Even former Commissioner Joe Barbetta, one of the leading advocates for recruiting the Orioles, laments that Ed Smith Stadium sits empty 85% of the year. No way is it paying for itself when you add in the investment to renovate, the year-round maintenance costs and opportunity costs.

One question we hope all commissioners ponder before saying yes to the Braves project is this: Imagine the Braves and the private developer are asking you personally to invest your family’s $21 million — money that your children and grandchildren would benefit from in the future. How would that be a good deal for you?

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