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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 11, 2019 1 month ago

Decision looms on Fruitville Road redesign

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Longboat Key leaders are formulating a strategy for fighting a road diet, but downtown stakeholders stand behind the city’s proposal.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Patrick Gannon has heard people suggest city staff members have been intentionally working quietly behind the scenes for two years to secure support for plans to redesign Fruitville Road, scheming to get a controversial project approved without generating too much public attention.

He thinks it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Gannon is the president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, one of several stakeholder groups to offer an endorsement for a Fruitville Road redesign that would narrow the street from four lanes to two lanes between Cocoanut Avenue and Lemon Avenue.

Gannon said a DSCA subcommittee has vetted the project since the city began the public review process in 2017. The group had questions about the numbers the city presented on traffic movement and projected growth. After a period of study, it came away satisfied the project would be beneficial for traffic flow, safety and business.

Gannon said other organizations in the area, including the Rosemary District Association and the Downtown Improvement District, reached the same conclusions because they genuinely thought the proposal was a good idea.

“There’s no nefarious backing of this,” Gannon said. “This is the people who live and work and walk and drive through there saying: This makes sense.”

On Monday, April 15, the City Commission will consider two proposals for redesigning Fruitville Road between U.S. 301 and U.S. 41. Both options would widen sidewalks, improve landscaping and eliminate bike lanes, directing cyclists to Second Street and Fourth Street instead as an east-west route.

The principal difference between the two design concepts falls within the segment between Cocoanut and Lemon. Option 1 would maintain the existing four-lane configuration. Option 2 would eliminate two lanes and add roundabouts to the three intersections along that stretch of road. Staff is recommending approval of Option 2.

The prospect of eliminating lanes on a road that helps link Interstate 75 to the barrier islands has generated controversy, with Longboat Key leaders mobilizing in opposition to the plans. But although there are outspoken critics of two-lane design concept, referred to as a “road diet,” there’s also a solid base of support headed into the April 15 meeting.

City staff stands behind the plans, noting their models show the redesign would handle traffic as well as or better than the existing configuration. Staff believes the proposal would improve safety, improve the pedestrian experience along Fruitville Road and better connect downtown to the Rosemary District.

Despite the touted safety improvements, Gannon said downtown residents were cautious about endorsing the project knowing barrier island residents had significant questions about how it might affect them. But after examining the city’s data, the DSCA found no reason to dispute the city’s assertion the project wouldn’t negatively affect travel to St. Armands, Lido and Longboat keys.

“It doesn’t look like it’s going to harm our neighbors,” Gannon said.

That’s done little to satisfy Longboat Key officials, who met Monday to go over their options for fighting the proposal. Island leaders believe the project favors pedestrians and would risk bogging down motor vehicle transportation.

“It’s obviously stupid, and I know you can’t say things like that, but sometimes you should,” Longboat Mayor George Spoll said at Monday’s meeting.

Longboat Key Town Attorney Maggie Mooney will represent the town at the April 15 City Commission meeting to make Longboat’s views known. She’s expected to relay the town’s “grave concerns” during a public comment portion of the meeting, where participants receive three minutes to speak on agenda items.

The town’s proposals speak to an ongoing concern on Longboat that the city’s transportation initiatives favor pedestrians at the expense of vehicles — particularly those traveling to the barrier islands.

“This project is very consistent with everything we’ve seen, with regard to the city of Sarasota’s focus on transportation, but more importantly, mobility,” Longboat Town Commissioner Jack Daly said. “The focus of the city, including this project, is to enhance local pedestrian, bicycle mobility. I think we have to recognize that is a city objective.”

Foremost of town officials’ objections is the prospect of a narrower evacuation route in moving traffic off the barrier islands and out of the mainland’s bayfront neighborhoods. They doubted a city study that showed evacuation traffic in front of Hurricane Irma in 2017 was less intense than typical peak-hour traffic.

City staff said that experience was indicative of a typical evacuation order, issued days before a storm is expected to hit. Still, Longboat officials wondered what might happen if a storm shifted course suddenly toward Sarasota.

“I would hate to judge it by Irma,” Spoll said.

Steve Stancel, the city’s general manager of economic development, noted the city could redirect all lanes on Fruitville Road for eastbound travel in case of evacuation. He also said, regardless of the configuration of Fruitville Road, the intersection at U.S. 301 would act as the ultimate constriction point for eastbound traffic flow, because it reaches a major north-south route.

In response to questions about emergency response, Stancel noted the road diet design includes 8-foot pullover lanes in each direction to make way for emergency vehicles.

Mooney last week requested public records from the city pertaining to ownership and maintenance of the Fruitville Road stretch between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301, attempting to officially verify the roadway is under city control. The town is also exploring the possibility of engaging a special counsel with more experience in transportation matters.

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