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Variety of ideas given to staff to research as County Commission continues focus on easing traffic congestion and parking problems related to Siesta Public Beach

By Rachel Brown Hackney
SarasotaNewsLeader.com

With more than 1,000 comments having been submitted online, plus emails and the remarks of 14 speakers, the Sarasota County Commission has asked staff to follow up on a number of ideas that potentially could ameliorate traffic congestion on Siesta Key.

As they discussed the idea of paid parking following the speakers’ comments, commissioners made it clear that unanimity does not exist for implementing such a program at Siesta Public Beach.

“I’m not sold on paid parking yet,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said. If the county did implement such a program, he added, taxpayers should be able to access the beach for free.

Commissioner Alan Maio concurred with the idea of free parking for county residents. “We cannot charge them …”

“I would support any program that’s fair to all residents of Sarasota County” and all county taxpayers, Commissioner Nancy Detert told her colleagues, as long as visitors still could have “a quality experience.”

Commissioner Michael Moran voiced concern about any program that would deter low-income residents, especially families, from visiting Siesta Public Beach. The board needs to talk about solutions for the traffic congestion, first, he continued, and then consider how to pay for them.

“I’d be in favor of paid parking,” Chair Charles Hines said, with the revenue allocated to solutions.

The commissioners asked staff to investigate the following:

• The process that would be necessary to construct a parking garage on the Key or possibly at Gulf Gate Mall, so people could leave their vehicles and then catch rides on the free Siesta Key Breeze open-air trolley, whose service also would have to be expanded to make that possible.

• The use of electronic message boards on Clark Road east of the Stickney Point Road intersection and on U.S. 41 both north and south of that intersection, to provide real-time information about whether spaces are available at Siesta Public Beach.

• The details of creating a mobile app that would enable people to learn the number of parking spaces available in the Siesta Public Beach lot at any given time and an estimate of the travel time to the beach via various access points to the island.

• The potential of establishing a water taxi service to Siesta Public Beach from Phillippi Estate Park, located at 5500 S. Tamiami Trail, which the county owns and where plenty of parking spaces are available, as Detert noted.

• Implementation of a bike-sharing program for people parking off the island.

• The potential use multiple areas of county right of way to allow the Siesta trolley to pull out of traffic as it loads and unloads passengers, so vehicles that have been following it can pass it.

During their discussion, commissioners did concur that if a paid parking program were implemented at the public beach, it would have to be free or inexpensive for county taxpayers, regardless of where the persons live.

Additionally, in light of public comments, they agreed that any revenue from a paid parking program would go toward measures to reduce traffic on Siesta — from expanding the trolley’s route north of Siesta Village to covering the cost of a parking garage, for examples.

Opportunities and constraints

At the opening of the workshop, Chair Hines acknowledged, “It’s a given that our population is growing … and that people have found Siesta Key and love our beach.” Yet, the constraints of the existing road network on the island — and the two drawbridges, on Stickney Point Road and Siesta Drive — make some solutions impossible, he continued.

Not much vacant land on the Key or even off the island is available for parking garages, he added, and what is available “is very, very expensive.”

Nonetheless, Hines said, “It’s a human condition that we all want to drive our own car, bring our own cooler and go to the beach when we want to and have our own designated parking spot.”

Among the 13 people who addressed the board was Gene Kusekoski, at the time, president of the Siesta Key Association (SKA).

The nonprofit sent the commissioners a letter, he noted, parts of which he read.

“From our perspective, the county must look at parking in the larger context of too many cars clogging area roadways today,” the letter said. “The public safety implications and challenges for residents trying to get to and from their homes here have been discussed at length. We encourage a holistic, systemic approach toward solutions,” Kusekoski told the board.

Representing the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, past chair Mark Smith referenced a survey the Chamber undertook of its members about paid parking at the public beach. In tallying the results, he said, Chamber leaders found that 85% agreed that county property owners should not be forced to pay. Further, 84% said any revenue from a parking program should be used for purposes involving the Key, Smith said.

In researching the paid parking program at Fort Myers Beach, he continued, the Chamber estimates that if just one-third of the Siesta Beach public parking lot were designated a paid area for visitors, about $2 million would be generated a year. “That’s gross,” he said, acknowledging that the company handling the program would keep some of the money as payment for its services.

Siesta resident Mike Cosentino told the board that the fact that parking has been free at the beaches in Sarasota County has “always been a source of pride.” He urged the commissioners to consider “the lowest common denominator in society” — residents who would struggle to afford a payment for parking at Siesta Public Beach.