By Rachel Brown Hackney
On Feb. 7, the assistant Sarasota County traffic engineer reaffirmed to Siesta Key Association (SKA) members that the county’s swap of Siesta roads for River Road, involving the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), is expected to be completed soon.
Larry Mau joined Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), in discussing traffic and parking issues on the island in the context of a planned Feb. 27 County Commission workshop.
For those among the approximately 65 audience members unfamiliar with River Road, Mau explained that it is a “two-lane road that carries very high volumes of traffic.”
Yet another stress on that route, he noted, will be its use to reach the new Atlanta Braves Spring Training complex, which is under construction in the West Villages. The Braves will play the final game of their 2019 Spring Training season there in March.
Additionally, county commissioners in recent years have noted the thousands of new homes under construction in the vicinity of River Road, as well as the road’s designation as a hurricane evacuation route for South County and Charlotte County residents.
Yet, the county has not had the financial wherewithal to widen River Road and make the other long-sought improvements to it, Mau pointed out. “It is pushing more than $70 million to widen that road,” he said.
Therefore, he continued, “We made a deal with DOT.”
The county will assume authority over all of State Road 758 west of U.S. 41, and Stickney Point Road, Mau told the audience, and the state will take over River Road.
The deal will not include the Siesta Drive and Stickney Point Road drawbridges, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has explained; FDOT will continue to maintain control of them.
During the Feb. 7 discussion, SKA President Gene Kusekoski pointed out that on the stretch of State Road 758 — Midnight Pass Road — from the Stickney Point Road intersection to the Beach Road intersection, bicyclists and pedestrians must contend with the fact that the condominium complex properties “come in and out; the shoulder disappears and reappears.”
In a May 23, 2018 email to Commissioner Alan Maio — who represents Siesta Key as part of District 4 — Kusekoski explained, “The shoulder on that segment, where bikes normal ride, varies in width from a barely acceptable 2-3 feet to essentially the width of the white line marking the roadway boundary. No part of this meets the standards to be designated as an official bike lane, but some parts do allow for safe cycling. Unfortunately, many parts do not.
“To make matters worse,” Kusekoski continued, “the transition between the asphalt roadway and cement sidewalk has height differences ranging from essentially flat to a 3-4 inch drop in either direction. This has caused many bikers to take a spill in this area. FDOT efforts to try to mitigate the problem by adding asphalt ‘ramps’ between the shoulder and the sidewalk have actually made the problem worse by adding yet another transition to the narrow shoulder.”
During the Feb. 7 SKA meeting, Kusekoski told Mau that he had seen surveyors working on parts of the stretch of road he had addressed in that email, and he knows that the resurfacing of Midnight Pass Road is planned from the Stickney Point Road intersection to Shadow Law Drive in the 2022 fiscal year. Is anyone considering trying to provide more uniformity with the shoulders and the sidewalk, he asked.
County staff has requested that FDOT undertake some improvements on parts of State Road 758 before the swap is completed, Mau replied. “The right of way is very tight out there,” he added. “It is extremely expensive to acquire right of way. There’s not a whole lot we can do, but we certainly will do what we can …”
A woman in the audience who apparently was unfamiliar with the proposed road swap asked whether that would include the stretch of Midnight Pass Road south from the Stickney Point Road intersection.
Mau told her that that already is under county authority. It is listed as County Road 789.
Another member of the audience asked whether the county would have control over the traffic signals at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and Midnight Pass Road after the swap has been completed.
“Those have to be the worst signals,” the man added. Drivers unfamiliar with Siesta do not realize that they can turn right on the red arrow, the man continued, so they do not, “[and] traffic backs up to [U.S.] 41.”
“We will have control of that,” Mau replied, “so, yes, we’ll be glad to look at [the situation].”
In recent years, FDOT has imposed a variety of limitations on traffic flow at the intersection. Because of concerns that arose in early 2014 about the safety of pedestrians trying to cross at Stickney Point Road/Midnight Pass Road, FDOT erected a “No Turn on Red” sign for traffic planning to head north from Stickney Point Road onto Midnight Pass Road.
Complaints immediately began to multiply.
As a result, FDOT staff installed a “blankout” sign to prevent right turns onto Midnight Pass Road whenever a pedestrian pushed the button to use the crosswalk. Otherwise drivers would be able to turn right on red.
Then, in late 2015, FDOT began work on another new project at the intersection — this one also designed to improve pedestrian safety. The crosswalks were reconfigured. However, after island business owners and residents protested the initial design, traffic was allowed to use an “acceleration lane” to turn right from Stickney Point Road onto northbound Midnight Pass Road.