Longboat Key leaders have expressed their concerns about how mainland traffic impacts the barrier islands.
The Florida Department of Transportation is moving forward with plans to build a multi-lane roundabout at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue on Sarasota's bayfront, beginning this spring.
FDOT leaders held a virtual public meeting in December to discuss the project’s plans and bring stakeholders up to date on the schedule of work. Longboat Key leaders have been wary of the project since its inception, raising questions about its need and its potential to improve traffic moving back and forth from the barrier islands.
They've joined business owners on St. Armands Circle in successfully lobbying for a shorter work schedule and a later start in 2021, hoping to head off some of the traffic headaches that plagued the corridor in 2020.
“Longboat Key has not been a fan of the Gulfstream-U.S. 41 roundabout,” said Longboat Key District 4 Commissioner Jack Daly.
Daly also serves as the town’s representative on the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
“We had an expert opinion here that essentially concluded that it might be a wash with the present situation,” Daly said of plans for the U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue roundabout. “Personally, I’d be as surprised if it's as good as that, but I'm hopeful that that's not the case.”
The project includes installing a HAWK (high-intensity activated crosswalk) pedestrian crossing signal system. It allows pedestrians to push a button to cross the street, which prompts traffic to stop, which town leaders have also questioned. The system essentially allows pedestrians to halt traffic on demand.
Citing recommendations from the Barrier Island Traffic Study, Daly and town leaders have advocated for the project to include an overhead pedestrian walkway as part of the Gulfstream roundabout to keep traffic flowing, not subject to the whims of pedestrians.
Daly said he would eventually like to see the city of Sarasota utilize several overhead walkways to make sure traffic doesn’t gridlock.
“The major automobile traffic remedy that I see to balance that pedestrian activity, long-range, are elevated walkways,” Daly said. “I think that's one of the more significant, if not the most significant, [ways to make sure there is] automobile mediation in that area. And, that obviously is a major impact on the barrier islands, Lido Key and Longboat Key, for sure.”
Including the elevated pedestrian walkway would require an agreement with the Ritz-Carlton to use some of their property.
“We have been asked to look into the feasibility of a pedestrian overpass near the 1st Street intersection,” said FDOT Gulfstream Roundabout project manager Jeffrey Mednick. “We are still in the process of looking into alternatives and meeting with the Ritz to see if it will be possible.”
Mednick said the state has looked into future meetings with the contractor because the cost would need to be added to the contract. An overhead pedestrian walkway is not in the contract as of Dec. 16, according to Mednick.
Daly said he is still hopeful the elevated walkways are part of the project both on a temporary basis during construction and permanently once roundabout construction is finished.
Plans also call for the replacement of the underground drainage structures, utilities, fiber optic, LED streetlights, reconfiguration of stormwater retention ponds, and adding sidewalks and pedestrian walkways.
Construction is scheduled to start on the project in February 2021, according to FDOT’s website. The state estimates it will take until fall 2022 to complete the project. Work affecting traffic won't begin until after the area's traditional visitor and tourist season. Since initial plans were announced, FDOT has reduced the expected timeline for the project by 100 days, adding contractor incentives for timely completion.
Sarasota City Engineer Alex DavisShaw said city officials continue to stand behind the roundabout plans. She also highlighted the potential improvements for modes of transportation other than driving, stating the city wanted to improve the pedestrian connectivity between downtown and the bayfront.
“One of the important things the city was looking about with the roundabout at Gulfstream is that it could handle the traffic volume as good as or better than the signal, but also, it’s better for pedestrians,” DavisShaw said. “We wanted it to be more multimodal and create a better sense of place for the corridor.
Longboat leaders supported FDOT when the agency added an additional left turn lane at the intersection, allowing more mainland bound traffic to flow north along U.S. 41 from the causeway. In 2020, that extra lane was closed for weeks as work progressed on a now-open roundabout at Fruitville Road. Frequent delays and backups were the result. A citizen petition to stop the roundabout project attracted more than 1,100 signatures.
FDOT claims roundabouts reduce fatality crashes up to 90%, reduce injury crashes by 76% and overall crashes by 36%. The state also claims roundabouts reduce maintenance costs of equipment like traffic lights, and are more environmentally because vehicles are not sitting idly at stoplights.
CDM project engineer Christopher Pecor said the completed roundabout will have a 25 mph speed limit. During construction, the state said the speed limit will drop from 35 mph to 30 mph for traffic coming from the John Ringling Causeway to Gulfstream Avenue.
Fellow CDM Smith project engineer Pinky Pakalapati said FDOT has recently completed or is about to complete similar roundabouts along U.S. 41 in Sarasota: One is at the intersection of Fruitville Road, another at 10th Street and the other at 14th Street.
“From what we see, it’s working really well,” Pakalapati said.
Pakalapati said traffic at the completed roundabouts have seen “continuous flow,” and the wait times are “significantly less” than a signalized intersection.
“You’re not noticing a bunch of people waiting at the roundabout to get in,” Pakalapati said. “Yes, you are waiting for maybe 10 seconds during the peak hour on the mainland. I’m exaggerating that. I don’t think I ever waited 10 seconds.”
In 2019, the region of Sarasota and Manatee counties ranked as the fourth-most dangerous place in the U.S. for pedestrian deaths. Smart Growth America found Sarasota, North Port and Bradenton had 194 pedestrian deaths from 2008-2017.