By Rachel Brown Hackney
As he prepares to take on the role of chair in 2019, Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines has signaled his intention to put the focus on improvements to the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road.
During the day-long, Dec. 12 public hearing on the Siesta Promenade mixed-use project — which is planned for the northwest quadrant of that intersection — Hines at one point said to Todd Mathes, director of development for Benderson Development, “If you don’t build anything, the evidence is absolutely clear: That intersection is a disaster.”
Hines added, “It truly is a public safety problem,” especially because of the fact that the Stickney Point Road drawbridge can open as often as twice an hour and the four lanes on Stickney Point Road drop to two lanes on Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key.
On Dec. 13, the day after the commissioners approved Siesta Promenade on split votes, Hines sent an email to Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division; County Administrator Jonathan Lewis; and Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department.
“Considering the results of yesterday’s hearing and the discussion in regards to [U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road],” he wrote, “I really believe it would be worthwhile if we have a serious discussion in regards to our strategy and plans in regards to this congested area. Much like we did, with great success, with River Road and the diverging diamond, if we all believe and know that this is an area that’s only going to get worse over the next few years, we need to have a real strategy and plan to address it.”
Hines was referring to county staff’s year-long negotiations with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to transfer county authority over River Road to the state in exchange for the county’s assuming control of roads on Siesta Key. Under state administration, River Road will have a higher priority for widening and other improvements that the county has sought for decades as a state road, FDOT staff has explained.
As for the Diverging Diamond: Hines mentioned that major FDOT traffic project during the Siesta Promenade hearing, noting that Benderson Development had worked with the county to push for the construction to decrease congestion at Interstate 75’s interchange with University Parkway.
Hines continued in the Dec. 13 email, “It is undisputed that there is truly a public safety issue with getting on and off [Siesta] Key and the backing up and blocking of the US 41 intersection.” He added that, the previous day, he and Commissioner Alan Maio “mentioned a few options … regarding the bridge and the intersection. To my knowledge a fly-over or underpass haven’t been used in Sarasota County at this type of intersection for vehicles,” he added. “[H]owever they have been in other areas to address intersections such as this one.”
Hines continued, “We obviously need the help of FDOT, the [Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization], the private sector in and around this intersection and the residents of and those who frequent Siesta Key beach and [island] businesses to help design a more aesthetically pleasing, safe and walkable/bikeable intersection. If downtown Baltimore and Times Square can [redesign] their major downtown intersections,” he added, “I believe we can do the same.”
Hines concluded his Dec. 13 email, “The changes in our building codes that are encouraging mixed-use and urban redevelopment may cause the [owners of property at the] other quadrants at this intersection [of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road] to rethink their plans. As we are trying to encourage walkability in our urban areas retrofitting this intersection to allow for that may be a plan that our entire Community can support.”
During the Siesta Promenade public hearing, Hines asked a number of questions of Wiggins of Transportation Planning. “Talk to me a little bit about the idea,” he said, that allowing increased density in a Critical Area Plan (CAP) project, such as Siesta Promenade, implies that the community will promote walkability.
“If I’m staying in this hotel [Benderson Development plans in Siesta Promenade] and want to go across [the street]” to a restaurant, he added, “that intersection is just horrible; it is not walkable.”
Hines asked Wiggins to explain to him how people would be expected to walk from Siesta Promenade to the commercial centers on the other three quadrants of the intersection.
Wiggins replied that the Benderson Development project team had to show the project would offer multimodal connections — walking and biking — to those areas around it. Still, Wiggins acknowledged, “It is very difficult to cross, given the amount of time [allowed pedestrians at the traffic signals].”
When one factors in the reality that some people walk more slowly than others, she continued, “That is something that is still going to be difficult.”
Pedestrian overpasses, she said, are probably the solution. “That’s what would have to occur … to get people from one side to the other.”
Hines asked her whether staff discussed with the Benderson project team the need for people to be able to move back and forth between Siesta Promenade and Sarasota Pavilion and Gulf Gate.
Crosswalks are in place at the intersection, Wiggins replied. However, as an extra safety measure, she said, “grade separation facilities” would be preferable. Later, she explained that she was referring to constructing one part of the road over the other.