Cyclists on Siesta Key hope to see improvements in a bumpy and narrow stretch of a popular roadway.
Improvements to Midnight Pass Road’s bumpy pavement can’t come soon enough for Gene Kusekoski, an avid bicyclist who lives and frequently rides on Siesta Key. And plans are in the works to do just that.
But a remedy for his chief complaint — a narrower-than-normal bike lane on the same stretch of road — is perhaps further off as
Sarasota County and state officials work through the details of a highway swap that would bring the two-lane road under local control and decision-making.
“In my experience, it’s this area between Stickney Point Road and Beach Road … that’s the worst,” he said. “There isn’t really a bike lane in this area; there’s a paved shoulder.”
The often-congested stretch of vacation rentals and condos is frequently packed with pedestrians, drivers unfamiliar with the area, passenger trolleys and a wide range of cyclists, both serious and recreational, on everything from beach bikes for hire to sophisticated road machines. Kusekoski and others said safe navigation of that combination of narrow bicycle lanes and inconsistent surfaces often depends on the type of bicycle.
“The bottom line is, if you ride a big cruiser or fat-tire bike, you probably won’t have as many problems with the infrastructure,” Kusekoski said. “But if you ride a racing bike with a [thin] tire, those are deadly.”
Dennis Gottschalk, another Siesta Key resident and bicycle rider, said he prefers his racing-style bike and has to pay attention to his surroundings.
“For the rental bikes, it’s not so terrible,” he said. “But it doesn’t take a lot to throw me.’’
A plan to resurface Midnight Pass Road from Stickney Point Road to Shadow Lawn Drive, which is just north of the split with Beach Road, is planned by fiscal year 2022.
Further proposals for improvements will be the decision of county officials, who will likely begin final discussions on the swap this summer.
About a year ago, the county and state began talks to trade control of River Road near Venice with State Road 758 — between Siesta Key’s two bridges — as a means to address Siesta Key residents’ traffic-safety concerns and upgrade River Road to serve as a coastal evacuation site.
Beyond the cycling issues, residents hoped for more responsive action from county officials in regard to a host of concerns, including the curve where Higel Avenue turns into Siesta Drive, which has been the site of several fatal vehicle crashes.
For Kusekoski and other cyclists, the bike lane width is a top concern.
The standard recommended width of bike lanes on low-speed roads, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation, is 4 feet. But in certain stretches along Midnight Pass Road, the bike lane is barely 2 feet.
In some of those areas, condominium driveways extend into the bike lane with different surfaces or elevations. In other areas, sand, grass and manhole covers encroach on the lanes.
David Jones, the FDOT manager for the scheduled project resurfacing project, says that it is too early to know whether anything can be done to widen the bike lanes as part of the resurfacing and restriping operations. That might have to wait for more extensive work to be done.
Cyclist crashes are hard to enumerate because incidents are not always reported or can be labeled as pedestrian accidents.
“These [statistics] are recorded (by the county) as vehicle versus pedestrian and don’t specify if each call involved a bicycle,” Emergency Services spokeswoman Ashley Lusby said. “It would be very difficult to break it down to Siesta Key.’’
At least 170 bicycle-involved crashes were reported in territory patrolled by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in 2018, records show. At least three of those were serious enough for first-responders to be called on Siesta Key. Those numbers have held fairly steady for the last five years.
Greg Lintner, a part-time Siesta Key resident and cyclist from Pittsburgh, says he agrees the narrow stretch of bicycle lane mentioned by Kusekoski and others can be tricky, which is why he sometimes chooses the sidewalk over the street. That option is perfectly legal,
but puts the responsibility of ceding the right of way to those on foot.
Generally, he likes Siesta’s two-wheeled atmosphere.
“It’s a safe place to bike as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I think it’s great … It gives me something to do. I can bike around the whole island or anything around here, really.”
Kusekoski said knowing conditions aren’t always optimum is a big part of keeping safe and acknowledges that changes won’t happen swiftly.
“It’s not an easy problem to solve,” he said. “The only thing I’d like to see is more awareness … Listen, look and assume that you’re doing something dangerous in this stretch. You’ll be safe if you pay attention.”