Despite initial pushback, city staff is once again endorsing a proposal to eliminate lanes from a segment of the downtown street.
Even as residents and elected officials offered harsh rebukes of a potential Fruitville Road streetscape project, Steve Stancel never lost faith in the data.
Since 2015, the city 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 street that divides downtown from the Rosemary District and Gillespie Park.
Stancel, the city’s general manager of economic development and a former planner, was part of the team that ultimately identified a favored option for altering Fruitville. The most attention-grabbing detail: Between Cocoanut Avenue and Lemon Avenue, the street would narrow from four lanes to two lanes, 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, with similar improvements planned along the entire corridor, staff said.
Those plans drew outspoken criticism in 2017, when the city last held a community workshop to discuss a potential project. Seven of the eight candidates running for a seat on the City Commission opposed the proposal at the time. Longboat Key leaders worried the change would affect travel to the barrier islands. Earlier, a 2016 Sarasota Police Department memo expressed concern about safety and evacuation procedures.
In the past two years, city staff has continued to weigh its options for redesigning Fruitville Road. Rather than acquiescing to the critics, staff has worked to create a base of support for its favored plan, referred to as a road diet. The city’s studies indicated that, by 2038, the new design would minimally affect car travel times compared to making no changes. Given the development taking place north of Fruitville, staff maintained its desire to tame the road.
And so, on April 15, staff will appear before the City Commission to recommend approval of a design concept that would eliminate lanes on Fruitville Road. Although the city is presenting two options — one of which would maintain four lanes along the entirety of Fruitville Road without roundabouts — staff said the reduction in lanes is its preferred choice. Both plans are estimated to cost between $9.5 and $9.9 million.
Despite any earlier controversy, Stancel is optimistic there will be broader buy-in for the road diet now than there was two years ago.
“Once we’re able to show people how things can become more efficient and more safe and have better pedestrian activity but still maintain the level of service and travel times, in general, it becomes more acceptable to the community,” Stancel said.
That’s not to say all the critics of the project have been quieted.
Mike Lasche, head of the group Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocates, has continued to raise objections regarding the road diet to the City Commission. He still has questions about evacuation routes; the police department has not offered an update to its 2016 concerns, according to SPD spokeswoman Genevieve Judge.
Lasche isn’t convinced that Fruitville Road, in its current configuration, is particularly unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians. According to city data, there were 238 crashes in a five-year span between U.S. 41 and Gillespie Avenue on Fruitville Road. Six of those involved cyclists, and eight involved pedestrians. One of those collisions was fatal, and six more caused “incapacitating injury.”
Given the volume of traffic on the road, Lasche disagreed with the city’s assertion the street was in need of major traffic calming and pedestrian safety improvements.
“Right now, Fruitville Road functions well,” Lasche said. “It meets standards of safety. It is a safe road for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.”
Although the proposal would widen sidewalks on Fruitville Road, a cause for which Lasche has advocated, he was unconvinced the city’s approach was the best way to achieve that goal. Lasche expressed concern that eliminating bike lanes on Fruitville Road would eliminate a barrier of safety for people walking down the street. City staff said the widening of sidewalks would allow for the planting of large street trees. The plan also includes pull-over lanes next to the travel lanes on the narrowest section of the road to accommodate emergency vehicles.
Lasche sees Fruitville Road as an essential thoroughfare for cars traveling from the interstate to downtown and farther west. He said a heavily trafficked Fruitville Road was responsible for bringing people downtown, and he thought the city’s proposal was hostile to those attempting to get around via motor vehicles.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Lasche said. “You can’t have lots of people coming downtown in their cars without lots of car traffic.”
Stancel and Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein continued to refer to the studies the city commissioned to evaluate the different design options. At worst, the projected 2038 travel times with and without roundabouts were exactly the same. At best, westbound travel times during evening peak hours were projected to improve by 43 seconds.
In response to evacuation questions, Ohrenstein said more cars would use the road during normal peak-hour traffic than they would in an evacuation. The city pulled statistics from Hurricane Irma to confirm their models.
“The amount of traffic during the evacuation is a little less than your day-to-day traffic — which sounds surprising, but we have the benefit of actual data to back that up,” Ohrenstein said.
City staff’s argument has persuaded some stakeholders during the past two years. Ohrenstein said groups that have offered support for the road diet include the Downtown Improvement District, the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, the Rosemary District Association, the Golden Gate Point Association and the Citizens with Disabilities Advisory Board.
Some of the groups the city has met with have had questions about the plans. Bob Trencheny, a board member of the Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Club, hoped the city’s plans to create bike routes along Second and Fourth streets would go beyond the addition of road markings to improve cyclist safety. Still, he was not concerned about the prospect of a road diet, describing it as a reasonable option for facilitating alternative modes of transportation.
“We would like to see some equity for bicyclists,” Trencheny said. “Drivers own, at this point, 99% of the road.”
Ahead of the April commission meeting, city staff acknowledged there will likely be sustained concerns about the prospect of reducing the number of lanes for cars. Ohrenstein said he believes those concerns are misguided on multiple fronts.
“I would find that to be a sad priority if that’s the only thing that matters,” Ohrenstein said. “And with the traffic model we ran with this, it shows the travel time will be just the same — if not slightly better — with the roundabouts. It’s a win for everybody.”