No-go for traffic model, county leaders say

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By ChrisAnn Allen

It is no secret; Siesta Key stakeholders are concerned with how proposed development might affect their quality of life.
Especially regarding traffic flow on increasingly congested roadways.
During their Jan. 30 meeting, Sarasota County commissioners voted 3-2 against a proposed Siesta Key “transportation microsimulation model,” which would have provided a detailed evaluation of how vehicular, pedestrian and multimodal transportation might be affected by new development in the area — specifically, the proposed new hotels.
The motion to commence with the model was made by District 2 commissioner Mark Smith and seconded by District 4 commissioner Joe Neunder, the two elected officials who represent the Key.
“We got sandbagged,” Bob Luckner, Siesta Key Association treasurer, said regarding the denial of the model at the group’s Feb. 1 meeting, noting that two of three opposing commissioners — Mike Moran and Neil Rainford — offered no reason for their no vote.
Luckner was among those who requested this type of study which, according to Spencer Anderson, the county public works director who led the presentation, “is much less generalized than the usual traffic simulation.”
“Their request was for us to develop a model and calibrate that to the specifics of Siesta Key, which they say is different than what it may be off-island,” Anderson added, pointing out the beaches create demand times which are distinct from regular business traffic.
Anderson said they must determine if the model would just be for Siesta Key or include other parts of the county, because the state repealed concurrency in 2016 to nothing beyond a quarter mile of the developed property is required for denial or approval of such projects. However, an assessment provided by the model could be used as a tool for planning.

Cars jockey for position at the intersection of Stickney Point Road and U.S. 41 as an emergency vehicle attempts to navigate through the congestion. (file photo)

As part of the presentation, Anderson said there are two companies currently offering these models and the base cost would be $500,000, with ongoing maintenance as a separate, not yet determined fee, throughout the course of the study lasting 12 to 18 months for the final product.
Smith was the first to respond, following Anderson’s presentation. He repeated Anderson’s claim regarding concurrency, but asserted because of the Key’s unique geography and layout it would be best for the model to extend beyond the quarter of a mile specification.
“Talking to my constituents out there on Siesta Key, we feel strongly that this model is needed to not increase the intensity of development on Siesta Key, or at least measure it,” he said. “We need a baseline to know what we’re talking about. So, this microsimulation would do that for us.”
Smith also referred to the two rulings against the county, through the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings as well as the circuit court, that future development should not allow already compromised roadways to further degrade.
“I believe, since we haven’t heard from the governor and cabinet, that this model would show that Sarasota County is abiding by these court rulings,” he said. “And we can’t make the assumption that a future comp plan change to intensify use on barrier islands won’t go without challenge and is actually going to be implemented.”
District 5 commissioner Ron Cutsinger said he did not support the study and cited cost without clear benefit as a concern, as well as the lack of need for concurrency as a determining factor for regulation of development.
“I agree that we need to do everything we can ongoingly with transportation and every option that we have, but we can continue to do those things without this study,” he said. “I just can’t see any real benefit here so I am not going to support it.”
Neunder asked Anderson the cost-benefit analysis for the study, adding that he’d “rather have the information and not need it than need it and not have it.”
Anderson responded the costs are based on “data collection” and cited the different traffic patterns generated on the Key compared to the mainland and, due to on/off season and special events, information must be collected for at least a year, but it is difficult to determine how helpful the data will be.
“I know the $500,00 threshold is kind of shocking. However, directly underneath financing is the health, safety and well-being of our community,” Neunder said. “Does this approach enhance our ability to protect this in a meaningful way?”
Smith asserted the study is necessary so “we don’t continue to keep making a difficult and bad situation worse.”
Smith motioned to approve the study and Neunder seconded it with “reservations on cost,” but the motion failed due to lack of support from Cutsinger, Moran and Rainford.

The crush of visitors to Siesta Beach is another cause for traffic concerns on Siesta Key. (file photo)
ChrisAnn Allen
Author: ChrisAnn Allen

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