By Rachel Brown Hackney
A proposal that was not even on a consultant’s list of traffic mitigation measures for Siesta Key has sparked new controversy.
On May 5, the Sarasota County Commission was preparing to listen to a report on recommendations of a Tampa consultant whom county staff hired last year to study transportation issues on Siesta Key. First, however, Spencer Anderson, director of the county’s Public Works Department, stepped to the podium in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.
Anderson explained that about five years ago, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) proposed a roundabout at the intersection of Midnight Pass Road and Beach Road, near Siesta Public Beach. “We are currently having discussions with the DOT,” Anderson continued. “They’ve kind of reintroduced that effort.”
He added that in 2022, FDOT plans to resurface Midnight Pass Road from the Stickney Point Road intersection to the intersection of Shadow Lawn Way. “That is the impetus,” Anderson continued, for the revival of the roundabout discussion.
“The biggest concern,” he noted, for leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce “has been pedestrian safety. We want to make sure that we evaluate all options before we eliminate anything in its entirety.”
Anderson pointed out that better engineering designs have become available in recent years to facilitate pedestrian safety in roundabouts.
In response to a SNL request for information about the latest proposal, Brian R. Rick, spokesman for FDOT’s District 1, wrote in a May 6 email, “The project you referenced for 2022 includes intersection improvements for Beach Road and Midnight Pass. We are looking at all options at this time; however, no decision has been made as to what improvements will be implemented. We will continue to work with our partners in the county and the community to arrive at the best possible approach.”
On May 1, Catherine Luckner, the SKA president, sent an email to Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, to offer comments from her nonprofit’s board, the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce and full-time residents “who utilize [the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road] intersection frequently.”
“There is no support for a roundabout at that intersection,” Luckner pointed out. “Everyone was familiar with roundabouts and most use them in other locations.”
Among the comments she had received in regard to ways to improve the intersection, Luckner noted, were the following:
• Extend the right turn lane farther along Midnight Pass Road on the approach from the north — in other words, for traffic heading to the public beach. “This might reduce traffic backup for left turns,” Luckner added.
• Extend the right turn lane option farther south on Midnight Pass Road for traffic approaching the intersection of Beach Road from the south. “This could reduce [backups] for those driving north on Midnight Pass.”
• Install crosswalk signals with a countdown feature, for pedestrian safety.
• Remove vegetation to improve visibility at the pedestrian island; cyclists and pedestrians then would be safer as they traveled to and from the entrances to the public beach.
“At present,” Luckner continued, “everyone agreed the timing of the intersection traffic light is efficient. The light timing responds well to the volume of traffic.” The only thing that would be better, she noted, would be having a Sheriff’s Office deputy directing traffic when the volume is high.
Flashback to 2014
In 2014, after FDOT first proposed a roundabout at the Beach Road/Midnight Pass Road intersection, members of the County Commission at that time raised questions about the project.
FDOT staff had let the board members know that the plans were “pretty set in stone.” However, then-Commissioner Nora Patterson, who lives on Siesta Key, told the News Leader during a Jan. 10, 2014 interview, “Nothing’s set in stone if there’s a big uprising about it.”
Additionally, then-Commissioner Christine Robinson, a Venice resident who regularly traveled the Key, conveyed to the SNL her fears about clogged traffic in both directions on Beach Road if the roundabout were constructed.
“During season, it is not uncommon for traffic to be backed up,” Robinson noted. However, at least drivers who want to head south at the Beach Road intersection with Midnight Pass Road can take advantage of the traffic signal to do so, she continued. If motorists had to negotiate a roundabout, with heavy traffic feeding into it from both directions, Robinson asked how a person who wanted to head toward the southern part of the island would be able do so “without something there saying, ‘Your turn.’”
Robin Stublen, then communications specialist for FDOT’s District 1 staff, told the SNL that he understood the roundabout had been the focus of presentations to the County Commission.
Yet, Robinson told the SNL that the only discussion held about the project had been among the members of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which deals with transportation issues for the two counties.
“We never talked about [the roundabout idea] at a commission meeting,” Robinson pointed out to the SNL.
A year later, in 2015, FDOT had backed away from the roundabout proposal.
During the Jan. 19, 2016 meeting of the Siesta Key Condominium Council, Commissioner Alan Maio — who won Patterson’s District 4 seat after term limits forced her to step down — noted the status of the plans.
When FDOT held a public meeting in March 2015, which was “extremely well attended,” Maio said, a clear majority of attendees opposed the roundabout idea. Afterward, he added, FDOT staff members dropped the proposal.
“They promised me that they would call me if it gets any life back to it,” Maio told the Condo Council members, referring to FDOT staff members.
None of the commissioners — including Maio — offered comments on May 5 about the revival of the roundabout proposal.