Longboat mayor also requests St. Armands crossing guards begin work sooner than planned.
In a mayor-to-mayor message delivered to Sarasota Town Hall last week, Longboat Key’s George Spoll calls this season’s traffic congestion between the barrier islands and mainland “gridlock’’ and requests the city to “delay and reconsider” construction of a roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41.
For weeks, traffic congestion, a variety of road construction progress and future construction plans have dominated conversation around the barrier islands as daily backups on the John Ringling Causeway have extended to St. Armands Circle and Longboat Key.
Residents, elected officials, administrators and others have questioned the reasoning and timing of some projects and sought short-term and long-term solutions to delays on the roadways.
One of the focuses of the vitriol has been the closure of the third turn lane on Gulfstream Avenue to northbound U.S. 41 in connection with the Fruitville Road roundabout project a few blocks to the north.
Spoll and others have also questioned the timing of the biggest of the Sarasota roundabout projects, slated to begin late this year at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream. In his letter to Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, Spoll wrote: “We need the current construction to be finished and given an opportunity to settle down.’’
Longboat Key Town Manager Tom Harmer was scheduled to meet Monday with Sarasota officials and FDOT District Secretary LK Nandam to discuss the traffic congestion around the city’s bayfront.
Spoll also called for earlier implementation of crossing guards in St. Armands Circle to help with gathering groups of pedestrians to cross the street together, with an eye toward keeping frequent stops by vehicles to a minimum. Longboat, Sarasota and FDOT agreed to split the $21,000 cost of such a service.
“We sincerely appreciate your support in recognizing there is a problem and are grateful for your expressed support of reconsidering the construction of the U.S. 41 and Gulfstream roundabout,’’ Spoll wrote.
Ahearn-Koch has said she believes officials could identify a more effective long-term plan for the U.S. 41 intersection than the major roundabout if stakeholders met to discuss the options available to them.
“The ideas and designs should be for 50 years and for 80-100% congestion relief,” Ahearn-Koch said.
She also reiterated her belief the city should reconsider its long-term plans for redesigning the U.S. 41 corridor.
“I think we can do much better, or at least have an updated discussion,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Any changes to the plan for a roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream would have to be taken up by the City Commission and coordinated with FDOT, which oversees the state highway. City staff has, however, responded to the concern Ahearn-Koch and barrier islands residents have expressed about the project. On Feb. 12, Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein sent a memo to city staff touting the projected benefits of the roundabout, a document Chief Transportation Planner Colleen McGue later revised and updated.
The memo states a 2019 study determined the roundabout would reduce February peak hour intersection delay by 29% and March delays by 41%. It also notes the safety benefits of roundabouts as compared to signalized intersections, particularly for pedestrians.
Through the memo, city planning and engineering staff argued the roundabout will ultimately be productive for addressing seasonal traffic frustrations.
“In short, the Gulfstream roundabout has been affirmed by the public and the City Commission for two decades as the way to fix traffic at the intersection and connect downtown to the bayfront,” the memo states. “As staff receive daily indications of the discontent of motorists waiting along John Ringling Causeway, this project is a timely and fortunate solution.”
Those arguments have failed to convince Ahearn-Koch. Although the memo states the project is “the culmination of the work of a whole generation of professionals,” the mayor believes officials could identify a more effective long-term plan for the intersection if stakeholders met to discuss the options available to them.
In an emailed statement, City Manager Tom Barwin said the city wants to do what it can to maintain clear lines of communication to their residents and neighbors on the islands.
“We are continually looking to improve our collaboration with the town of Longboat Key with information on projects or incidents which could impact movements to or from the barrier islands,” Barwin said. “We’ve reached out to FDOT regarding communication and enhancing our unified approach to managing traffic, especially during the season and during construction projects.”
(Sarasota Observer Deputy Managing Editor David Conway contributed reporting to this story)
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