Now that the county will manage major Siesta Key roads, residents are seeking improvements.
A group of north Siesta Key residents says a decision this week might have been a breakthrough moment in an ongoing effort to implement safety improvements on a street in their neighborhood.
With a 4-0 vote on May 22, , the County Commission agreed to relinquish a road it has been struggling to maintain for more than a decade. In return, it is now responsible for controlling and maintaining several main thoroughfares on Siesta Key previously managed by the Florida Department of Transportation.
FDOT will take ownership of North River Road, in North Port between Interstate 75 and U.S. 41, which will allow the agency to use state and federal funding for improvements the county has been working toward for years.
The county will take responsibility for a segment of State Road 758 that terminates near the north and south bridges to Siesta Key. The road includes portions of Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue, Midnight Pass Road, Osprey Avenue and Bay Road.
Spencer Anderson, the county’s interim director of public works, said the swap likely would be final before the end of 2018.
As part of the trade, FDOT agreed to fund improvements to the curve at Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue, near the north bridge. The county would develop the improvement plan, which would go into effect after the swap takes place.
Members of the Bay Island Siesta Association, which represents north Siesta neighborhoods, were eager for the agreement to be finalized. Residents formed Make Siesta Drive Safer, which is dedicated to improving conditions along Siesta Drive — particularly at the curved intersection at Higel Avenue.
Representatives for Make Siesta Drive Safer appeared at city and county commission meetings this week, urging officials to take action to reduce the speed along Siesta Drive from 40 mph to 30 mph, something local regulators might be more likely to do. In addition to roadway improvements, residents also hope to add a series of crosswalks to the area to let people living nearby safely cross Siesta Drive.
Although the residents had been working with FDOT on possible safety improvements, they believe county ownership of the road will allow for expedited changes. As a result, they’re pressing county and city officials to take action.
The group presented binders with more than 60 letters of resident support to county and city officials as it lobbied for future changes.
“We really believe by having one fewer governmental entity involved and local control, we would be more successful in our efforts,” said Pat Wulf, co-chairman of Make Siesta Drive Safer.
But Anderson cautioned Siesta Drive “is a fully constrained roadway.”
“The area that we have to make adjustments is very limited, but we will put forth our best efforts to see if we can make any measured difference in that area,” he said.
Siesta Key Association President Gene Kusekoski said the organization supports the Make Siesta Drive Safer campaign. Kusekoski also hopes the land swap will make it easier to implement changes along stretches of State Road 758.
He pointed to the segment of Midnight Pass Road between Beach Road and Stickney Point Road. Siesta residents have been working to make the road safer for cyclists and pedestrians as part of a broader effort to encourage alternate modes of transportation along the island. In the process, the residents found working with FDOT was a more complicated, slow-moving endeavor.
Kusekoski is optimistic the county will be more responsive to local needs.
“I think our goal has been more uniformity for the roads on Siesta Key,” he said. “(State Road) 758 is a major spine through the island, but it’s always been treated differently from all the other roads.”
Stickney Point sticking points
Not all residents are excited. The county’s ownership of Stickney Point Road was an issue for Sura Kochman, who has been active in opposing the proposed Siesta Promenade development near her mainland neighborhood.
Review of the planned mixed-use development at the northwest intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road includes an in-depth traffic study. Kochman has raised objections to how the county has been handling the study, and she believes FDOT would be the best agency to address the project’s impact on traffic in the area.
“This patchwork quilt of FDOT’s control … makes no sense,” she told county commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting. “FDOT’s control of Stickney Point Road should not be relinquished.”
Kusekoski said Siesta Key residents also were concerned about the county taking control of that segment of Stickney Point Road in light of the ongoing review of Siesta Promenade.
“The state had some very specific concerns about it,” Kusekoski said. “Our concern is, if that switches over to county control, that the county adopts that list of concerns and follows through with assuring a decent resolution.”
Anderson said staff review of the Siesta Promenade proposal is ongoing. County Commissioner Charles Hines said the state agency still will own the south bridge and the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road, which means FDOT will maintain interest in reviewing the project.
As the County Commission discussed the terms of the deal, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said FDOT did little to adjust from its initial road swap offer beyond agreeing to retain ownership of the bridges.
“Unfortunately after all of those negotiations, we’re left with this entire package,” Commissioner Al Maio said, indicating that he wanted to see FDOT keep Stickney Point Road. “Take it or leave it.”
As part of the swap, the county is agreeing to contribute $24 million in construction costs for 1.6 miles of N. River Road in North Port in fiscal year 2021. FDOT will contribute $41 million for construction on a 4-mile stretch in fiscal year 2024. They will split the cost of a $7 million study in fiscal year 2019.
Since 2002, $52.6 million has been invested into River Road improvements.
“Once they took the bridges, I am very happy to support this,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said, although she had to step out for the final vote. She noted that State Road 758 will be “very inexpensive to maintain” in comparison.