Town leaders say their opposition to Fruitville Road plan focuses on evacuation safety, bias for pedestrian mobility.
The way Longboat Key leaders see it, a road project under consideration by the city of Sarasota favors pedestrians in a way that could end up bogging down cars and trucks not only in an emergency but also under ordinary conditions.
And they’re planning to send their lawyer to a commission meeting at Sarasota City Hall next week to make a case for a better balance, while also looking into other ways to oppose the so-called “road diet” proposal for a key segment of Fruitville Road.
Town Attorney Maggie Mooney will represent the town at the April 15 meeting of the Sarasota City Commission to make Longboat Key’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 address city issues.
“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,’’ said Commissioner Jack Daly. "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.''
Since 2015, Sarasota has been working on options for redesigning Fruitville Road between U.S. 301 and U.S. 41, hoping to create a more welcoming pedestrian experience along a gateway street. The most attention-grabbing detail: Between Cocoanut Avenue and Lemon Avenue, the street would narrow from four lanes to two, with a roundabout at each of the three intersections on that segment of the road. The reduction would allow for the construction of wider sidewalks and enhanced landscaping
There is another version of the proposal that accomplishes many of the same aesthetic goals without the traffic circles or lane reductions. It gains the dimensions for wider sidewalks from space now dedicated to bicycle lanes, with another proposal for more bicycle-friendly routes a block to the south on Second Street. The favored approach, though, is the version with roundabouts.
“It’s obviously stupid, and I know you can’t say things like that, but sometimes you should,’’ Mayor George Spoll said in a town meeting on Monday.
Foremost of town officials’ objections is the effect of a narrower evacuation route in moving traffic east away from the barrier islands and the mainland's bayfront neighborhoods. They doubted a Sarasota study that showed evacuation traffic in front of Hurricane Irma in 2017 was less intense than typical peak-hour traffic. Warnings and evacuation orders for that storm were fairly long in duration in comparison to a storm that could shift course suddenly. “I would hate to judge it by Irma,’’ Spoll said.
Town Manager Tom Harmer said the Sarasota County Commission has taken no position on the proposal, nor has the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Sarasota’s Police Chief in 2016 wrote a memo to Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin raising her concerns about the need for extra police staffing during evacuations and special events to keep traffic moving and pedestrians crossing the road safe. Bernadette DiPino concluded “SPD levels will be adversely affected by the addition of roundabouts due to special events or evacuations.”
Sarasota County Emergency Management leaders issued a statement saying officials had not seen the city’s latest proposal to provide further commentary, but reiterated the need to move emergency trucks quickly through high-traffic corridors.
Mooney last week requested public records from the city of Sarasota pertaining to actual ownership and maintenance of the Fruitville Road stretch between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301. The town has heard anecdotal evidence that the segment is not part of the state highway system, making it easier for the city to enact changes, but, Mooney said, has not seen documentation to that effect. The town is also exploring the possibility of engaging a special counsel with more experience in transportation matters.