By Rachel Brown Hackney
Thanks to Sarasota County Commission action, a plan for more safety improvements in the nearly 90-degree curve at the intersection of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive on Siesta Key is expected to become reality by the spring of 2021.
In unanimous approval of their December 8th Consent Agenda of routine business items, the commissioners agreed to a Public Works Department request to include the initiative on the county’s Capital Projects list for the current fiscal year, which began on October 1st.
No one commented on the request before the vote, as is typical with Consent Agenda issues. However, during a later discussion of a proposed roundabout on Siesta Key, Public Works Director Spencer Anderson told the commissioners, “We are excited to get that work done” at the Higel-Siesta Drive intersection.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has provided the county $359,138 for the undertaking. Thus, the board vote encompassed adoption of a resolution that formally executed an agreement with FDOT for the transfer of the money and incorporation of the funds into the county’s budget for this fiscal year.
The FDOT financing for the project is one facet of the “road swap” that has been underway between the state department and Sarasota County. FDOT is assuming control over River Road between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 in South County, to ensure the widening of that route and safety improvements are undertaken in a timely fashion. In exchange, the county will take control of Siesta Key roads, including Siesta Drive west of Osprey Avenue in Sarasota.
A staff memo provided to the commissioners in advance of the December 8th meeting said that county staff would continue working with FDOT on the transfer of ownership of Higel Avenue and Siesta Drive “and associated right-of-way …”
In response to a SNL question about the status of the improvements to the Higel-Siesta Drive curve, Anderson of Public Works wrote in a December 2nd email that, if the commission approved the agenda items on December 8th, staff would need to get FDOT signatures on what he called the Local Agency Project agreement for the improvements to the curve. Anderson estimated that would take about 30 days. Then, he continued, “We’d get to work shortly afterwards, so I’d estimate completion by Spring 2021.”
Anderson also reiterated points he and other staff members have made to the commissioners in the past. “This is minor construction involving signs, striping, minor asphalt work and other similar [work].”
The formal Capital Projects Department initiative was detailed in an attachment provided to the commissioners in their December 8th agenda packet. That says the improvements also will include a “guard rail, traffic separators, delineators, flashing beacons and minor asphalt pavement removal.”
The project will comprise three segments, all of which will be in close proximity to each other, the document adds:
• The Higel Avenue-Siesta Drive improvements involving approximately 270 linear feet. The document explains, “The need for this project is based on the tightness of the existing Higel curve and need for better visibility and more advanced warning [for drivers].”
• A mid-block crosswalk on Higel Avenue at the North Shell Road intersection.
• A mid-block crosswalk on Siesta Drive at the Old Oak Drive intersection.
The document adds that staff does not anticipate “any appreciable increase” in the expense of the project, beyond the funding FDOT is providing the county for it.
On May 21, 2019, Paula Wiggins, manager of the county’s Transportation Planning Division, showed the commissioners a graphic that featured facets of the proposed changes in the area of the Higel-Siesta Drive curve. Among those were the installation of 108 linear feet of guardrail along the westbound section of Siesta Drive on the approach to the curve; the removal of the existing guardrail just south of the intersection; the addition of another 109 linear feet of guardrail further south of the curve; and a 225-foot-long traffic separator through the curve.
A committee of the Bay Island Siesta Association — which is an organization of homeowners who live on the northern part of Siesta Key — was established a couple of years ago to focus on initiatives that would enhance safety for drivers and pedestrians on the northern approach to the barrier island. Called Make Siesta Drive Safer (MSDS), the committee worked with FDOT staff to point out, especially, the need for improvements at the Higel-Siesta Drive curve.
Representatives of the Bay Island Siesta Association and MSDS have made presentations to the Siesta Key Association (SKA) about their efforts. In January 2018, the organization’s president, Pat Wulf, reported that MSDS began its work in mid-May 2017. It learned that 180 crashes involving more than 300 vehicles were recorded on the 1.9-mile stretch from Osprey Avenue to Higel Avenue between 2012 and 2015. Those resulted in 10 fatalities and 70 injuries, Wulf added.
However, Wulf said the association’s members were convinced the actual number of crashes was even higher. That was because many drivers who fail to successfully negotiate Higel-Siesta Drive curve do not sustain enough vehicle damage to prevent them from driving away without contacting law enforcement officers.
Asked for a response to the December 8th County Commission vote, Wulf responded in an email: “The Make Siesta Drive Safer (MSDS) Committee is happy to hear the multi-year effort to gain County control of Siesta Drive/Higel Avenue is finally happening and look forward to the long-promised improvements in the Siesta/Higel curve. With a tragic history of several deaths and many accidents in the curve, the enhancements will provide improved safety, which will benefit residents and visitors alike. We remain committed to working with the County to pursue crosswalks and a reduced speed limit along the corridor to promote a safer environment for the many pedestrians and bikers that live along the roadway or use it to access our beautiful beaches.”