By Rachel Brown Hackney
County leaders sent a letter on April 6 to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), spelling out the latest details of a proposed road swap involving River Road and Siesta Drive, Higel Avenue, Midnight Pass Road and Stickney Point Road on Siesta Key.
A summary accompanying the letter includes one key point that has not been raised in past discussions of the road swap: the FDOT commitment to “design, acquire necessary right of way, permit and construct a permanent improvement to the roughly 90-degree bend on [State Road] 758 within the City of Sarasota near the intersection of Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue.” That would take place before the county assumed responsibility for that section of the road network on Siesta Key, the summary adds, noting, “The County will have approval authority over the proposed improvement design.”
A committee of the Bay Island Siesta Association — Make Siesta Drive Safer — has been pressing FDOT since last year to make significant changes on Siesta Drive and Higel Avenue because of the number of accidents — including several with fatalities — that have occurred on that 1.9-mile stretch west of South Osprey Avenue. Pat Wulf, president of the association, told members of the Siesta Key Association in January that members of the committee hosted FDOT representatives for a site visit in August 2017. He summed up their response to that 90-degree curve as “Wow! This is messed up!”
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis referred to the April 6 letter in remarks to the County Commission during its regular meeting on April 10 in Venice. “We don’t have a response back, frankly, from DOT at this point,” Lewis said.
In an April 9 email, Commissioner Charles Hines had asked Lewis about providing an update to the board this week.
The negotiations have intensified in recent months as county leaders have sought a means of speeding up the improvements planned for River Road to improve hurricane evacuations, serve thousands of new residents who will be moving into South County developments and handle future traffic heading to the Atlanta Braves’ Spring Training complex, which is under construction in the West Villages.
Assistant Sarasota County Administrator Mark Cunningham sent the letter to L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s District 1 secretary in Bartow, summing up the proposals offered thus far for the exchange. River Road would become a state road, while the Siesta roads would transfer to county authority.
The April 6 letter lays out “where we think the offer is to DOT,” Lewis said.
Nandam does plan to come to Sarasota to talk with county staff, Lewis noted, and the county’s lobbyist in Tallahassee is “continuing to apply the pressure … I know it’s not the pace all of us would like,” Lewis said, “but we do continue to work on that item.”