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Siesta Key Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 6 years ago

Road-crossing options sought

by: Rachel Brown Hackney Managing Editor

If data justifies other options, they will be presented when the Florida Department of Transportation holds a public meeting Dec. 6 to discuss its proposal for placing 10 pedestrian islands in the center turn lane of Midnight Pass Road between Beach Road and Stickney Point Road, an FDOT engineer told the Siesta Key Association Oct. 6.

Whatever treatments FDOT suggests for improving the safety of pedestrians trying to cross that 1-mile stretch of road will have to be justified by department studies, L.K. Nandam, district traffic operations engineer, told the SKA board and the approximately 20 people in the audience.

“We want to really assure you all that community input is very critical to us,” he said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority … but we want to make sure the community is actually on board with what we do.”

Members of the Siesta Key Condominium Association have launched an initiative to derail the islands option, saying the structures will create more danger instead of improving pedestrian safety.

In explaining the history of the project, Nandam said that when the Sarasota County Commission about six years ago asked FDOT to look at safety issues on Midnight Pass Road, a study of traffic and pedestrian data showed that only one accident in five years had involved a pedestrian crossing the road.

Nonetheless, Nandam said, the road is heavily traveled, and people use the center turn lane as a refuge to enable them to pull out into traffic. The major problem for pedestrians, as illustrated by FDOT studies, he said, was that “people have to look for (traffic) gaps in both directions and worry about what’s happening in the center lane.”

Therefore, he said, FDOT sought a solution “to make the decision-making process easier for the pedestrian.” The result was the pedestrian islands proposal. Because no funding was available for the plan, Nandam added, nothing was done with it.

FDOT did lower the speed limit on that portion of Midnight Pass Road from 40 mph to 35 mph, however, he said, and it erected four sets of signs to warn motorists about pedestrians crossing the road.

In June, the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Commission found funding for the pedestrian islands project, Nandam continued, but subsequent to that, FDOT officials learned county officials and residents wanted them to revisit the proposal. The December public meeting will be part of that process, he said.

“My fear is that you have money to spend, and we don’t want to just say, ‘no,’” SKA President Catherine Luckner told Nandam.

“This is the kind of forum we would promote to get feedback,” he replied. “Are there other opportunities, other solutions, that we are not seeing, but you are seeing? ... If it is an option that really is workable,” he said, FDOT would evaluate it.

SKA board member Bob Waechter then asked, “Is one of the viable opportunities doing nothing? I don’t see how you could improve the safety record of one accident in five years. The chances of you doing this (project) and having a better safety record are pretty slim.”

“If we hear … this is something that the community doesn’t want,” Nandam said, FDOT probably would not pursue the project.

However, Nandam said, “If we could find one concentrated place where pedestrian crossings happen, we could focus on that one particular place.”

Sarasota County Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson pointed out that representatives of the condo association had suggested lowering the speed limit on that portion of Midnight Pass Road to 25 mph instead of putting in the islands.

“In season, traffic is so backed up, it is that slow,” she added.

Another suggestion was for just three pedestrian crosswalks along the road, she said, but FDOT had responded that not enough people would use them. “I still wonder if that isn’t a solution that people might embrace,” she said.

“We are going to look at that,” Nandam told her. However, FDOT has a minimum pedestrian count that dictates putting in a crosswalk, he said, and pedestrians still would have to make decisions about whether vehicles were going to stop for them in the crosswalks. The pedestrian count has to be higher to justify a crosswalk than it must be for a pedestrian island, he added.

“I do support the crosswalks,” said Walt Olson, vice president of the condo association.

Nandam also said the possibility of lowering the speed limit on that portion of the road “is not off the table.”

The Florida Department of Transportation will hold a public information meeting from 5 to 7 p.m. Dec. 6, at St. Michael the Archangel Church, 5394 Midnight Pass Road, to gather comments on a proposal for 10 pedestrian islands to be constructed along Midnight Pass Road between the Beach Road and Stickney Point Road intersections.

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