Thanks to Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody, the voice of citizens took priority Monday over the agenda of Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin.
At the urging of about 40 citizens who met Aug. 14 with the city staff, the City Commission unanimously rejected commission-approved plans for U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road.
Commissioners voted for a road plan that includes adding a third left-turn lane on the west side of Gulfstream Avenue at the U.S. 41 stoplight and then extend as a third lane from Gulfstream all the way to Fruitville to make it easier to turn right onto Fruitville. They also approved the installation of a signalized crosswalk at U.S. 41 and Ritz-Carlton Drive-First Street.
In 2015, the then-City Commission voted not to have the full right-turn lane between Gulfstream and Fruitville, and didn’t consider adding a third left-turn lane on Gulfstream. They opted for a wider strip on U.S. 41 for pedestrians.
Perhaps the commission’s vote marks a welcome shift in who is in charge at Sarasota City Hall — the citizens who pay the taxes or the city manager.
If you have followed the actions and words of City Manager Barwin over the past five years, Barwin has been one of the city’s leading advocates and drivers for shaping Sarasota into a New Urban utopia for pedestrians and bicyclists — at the expense of traffic flow.
Longboat Key, St. Armands Key, Lido Key and Bird Key residents and St. Armands Circle merchants know this well. In spite of yearly complaints about backed-up traffic extending at high season from Fruitville and U.S. 41 all the way to St. Armands Circle, the city has made few, if any, effective efforts to improve traffic flow.
Repeated cries for at least stationing traffic police officers at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream-Fruitville never triggered any substantive dialogue with City Hall or the city police.
This past season’s traffic backups were especially rough on St. Armands Circle’s businesses. In a memo to City Commissioners, Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, wrote:
“Season 2017 was not a good one for the merchants on St. Armands Circle … Many of our businesses have shared with me that they are down over 14% in comparison to previous years … [T]he customers were not there …
“Many people have told me that they will not come to St. Armands during season because they don’t want to deal with sitting in traffic forever, trying to get to and from the Circle.”
In response to that Aug. 14 meeting of citizens urging relief at the city’s most annoying chokepoint, the Sarasota Observer’s Deputy Managing Editor David Conway quoted Barwin saying:
“All of this angst is understandable, but it really amounts to about 5% of the time,” Barwin said. “You don’t, I think, dramatically change the character of an urbanized downtown and create really irresponsible pedestrian safety risks for 5% of the time.”
Five percent of the time?
Let’s see, by our historical count, “Season” officially begins in November. Longtime Longboaters will tell you it even begins in October. But let’s just say peak season is five months — November and January through April. And even if you say the backups occur only on weekends, which they don’t, that would be 10% of the time.
That’s 10% that becomes etched in everyone’s memories of their stays in Greater Sarasota.
We’ll concede this to Barwin: U.S. 41 is not pedestrian friendly anywhere. And with all of the development on the west side of U.S. 41 near downtown, it would behoove the city to have a safe connection for pedestrians.
The plan commissioners adopted Monday night with the signalized crosswalk will help. Let’s see it how functions.
But here’s the basic conundrum: With about 15,000 housing units, hundreds of resort units and Sarasota’s second-most popular tourist draw (St. Armands Circle) on the west side of the Ringling Bridge, vehicle traffic is always going to be heavy at the intersections of U.S. 41-Fruitville and Gulfstream.
That makes the continuous flow of traffic essential. Indeed, it’s an economic issue as much as anything. The city needs St. Armands Circle’s tax revenue and the high property values on the barrier islands. The city needs the free flow of traffic.
As for the pedestrians trying to cross U.S. 41 to get to downtown, there are other options:
- A raised, motorized people mover.
- Constant shuttles and trams.
- Or, a tunnel. Forget the roundabouts to be built at Fruitville and Gulfstream. Construct a tunnel under U.S. 41 from Fruitville to Gulfstream for through traffic, making the pavement above ground Barwin’s pedestrian-friendly utopia.
- Dream on. At least for two years, before the roundabouts go in, there will be a third left-turn lane on Gulfstream and a third lane for right turns between Gulfstream and Fruitville.
Thank you, Commissioner Brody.