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More background offered about installation of South Midnight Pass crosswalk lighting system

By Rachel Brown Hackney
SarasotaNewsLeader.com

Last spring, a group of residents at the Bay Tree Club on the southern end of Siesta Key achieved success after about two-and-a-half years of persistent effort on a project: Sarasota County staff installed a crosswalk between their buildings on the bay side and on the Gulf of Mexico.

Libby Sloan and Margi Ryder had explained in detail that they were concerned about older and handicapped neighbors who had experienced near misses with speeding vehicles.

In fact, when I visited with the two women and other residents on April 9, 2018, Betsy Lynch, who has lived in Bay Tree Club almost two decades, demonstrated the slow crossing of the road she has to make because she uses a type of cane. With this reporter watching and taking photos, Lynch was at the midpoint of Midnight Pass Road when a white SUV, approaching from the north, flew past her without ever slowing down.

On June 11, 2018, a county crew finally began work on a crosswalk. Sloan and Ryder were ecstatic.

However, as seasonal residents began returning to the Key this year, a new problem arose, drivers were speeding through the crosswalk as if it did not exist, in spite of the signage warning of a $166 fine if a vehicle did not stop for a person in the crosswalk.

Ryder brought up the concerns during the Jan. 10 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

As Sgt. Paul Cernansky, leader of the Sheriff’s Office substation on the Key, was taking questions from audience members, Ryder reminded him that she had exchanged emails with him and spoken with him on the phone the previous week about the crosswalk situation.

“We don’t have the flashing lights,” she pointed out, referring to the system that the county has installed at some crosswalks.  After a pedestrian presses a button, lights flash, alerting drivers that a person is preparing to use the crosswalk.

“Is there something else we can do?” Ryder asked Cernansky. “We’ve found that four out of five cars aren’t stopping.”

She was with her granddaughter one recent day, she pointed out, and as they were in the crosswalk, “a car just went flying right by us.”

Ryder added that she feels many drivers traveling on the south end of the island do not expect to see a crosswalk. The crosswalk at Bay Tree Club, she noted, is one of only two; the other is near the Turtle Beach Campground entrance, a slight distance south of Bay Tree Club.

“I’d keep calling the county,” Cernansky told her, including the Transportation Operations Division, he added, and her county commissioner. (Commissioner Alan Maio represents Siesta Key, which is part of District 4.)

Traffic Engineering and Operations would be the office to handle any enhancement of the crosswalk, Cernansky continued, whereas the Sheriff’s Office can only provide enforcement.

“We spent several hours down there since we last spoke,” he told Ryder. A deputy observed the crosswalk for about two hours “in one sitting,” Cernansky said, and then other officers — both in cars and on ATVs — stayed at the site on other occasions, for periods ranging between 15 and 30 minutes. “We’ve had all hands on deck.”

On Jan. 21, in the aftermath of their latest advocacy, the Bay Tree Club residents reported a big surprise: County staff had arrived to install a flashing light system at their crosswalk.

Libby Sloan reported in an email. “We have no idea where the request initiated,” she wrote, though she noted that Ryder had asked Cernansky questions at the SKA meeting on Jan. 10. “[W]e are very pleased!!”

SNL contacted Cernansky, conveying the news. “I’m glad they’re happy,” he said of the Bay Tree Club residents.

Then asked if he could provide any insights into how the lights came to be installed.

During a telephone interview, Cernansky explained that the Sheriff’s Office has an internal forum through which officers can convey concerns and alerts about specific situations that demand extra attention. He used that forum, he continued, to write about the crosswalk problems, especially so every Sheriff’s Department officer working on Siesta would be aware of the situation.

He added that senior administrative staff at the Sheriff’s Office “get alerted to certain emails” regarding problems on Siesta Key. “Anything that happens on Siesta Key is a big deal,” Cernansky pointed out.

Although he had no specific knowledge of what transpired in this case, he said, he indicated that it was likely that senior staff had conveyed the concerns to county staff.

Later, Robert Fakhri, manager of the county’s Traffic Engineering and Operations Division wrote in an email, “County administration asked engineering staff to review conditions at that intersection. Traffic engineering reviewed it and determined blinkers at that location might be helpful. The blinkers were installed on 1/22/19. What helped the speedy installation is that the equipment was already in storage. Otherwise it would of taken several weeks to order and install the equipment.”

Several Bay Tree Club residents emailed thank-you notes to Commissioner Maio and Fakhri. Among the correspondents were Sloan and Ryder, who wrote on behalf of the Bay Tree Club Board of Directors.

Then, about a week later, a fuller explanation about the lighting system’s origin appeared.

During the Jan. 10 SKA meeting, Catherine Luckner pointed out, Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson was present for a program about the county’s handling of illegal short-term home rentals. Johnson apparently was paying close attention when Ryder brought up the Bay Tree Club crosswalk problems.

Shortly after that meeting, Johnson sent the following email to the SKA board.

“I attended your recent SKA meeting last Thursday with Matt Osterhoudt [director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department] and took note of several complaints related to the visibility and safety of the new crosswalk on the southern section of Midnight Pass. As a result I have asked the Director of Public Works to evaluate the crosswalk to see if there is anything else that can be done to increase the safety for pedestrians using it.”

Johnson added, “I will let you know what is determined. In the meantime if you have any questions please let me know.”