County approves design, dates for major roundabout near public beach; mini roundabout about to go in at Ocean Blvd. and Higel Ave.
By John Morton
Next summer. That’s when workers will break ground on the roundabout.
After about three years of design tweaks and projected start dates, the controversial traffic-flow measure that’s approved for the high-profile intersection of Midnight Pass Road and Beach Road has come unto focus and will begin construction in the second half of 2024. With a seven-month timetable for completion, early 2025 is when we’ll likely see it finished.
At one point, the roundabout work was supposed to coincide with the island’s current repaving project. But the county delayed its start again to ease the stress.
And, according to Spencer Anderson with Sarasota County public works, it won’t require detours while being built. It will instead be passable via a single lane at times.
“It’s not a wise idea to direct traffic through the neighborhoods,” he said.
On March 21, the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners approved the $2.9 million project. Although the road is now owned by the county instead of the state (part of a trade in 2019), the Florida Department of Transportation is paying for the work because it’s a project it initially set in motion.
But first, Siesta Key residents will get a mini preview of what’s to come with the construction of a mini roundabout at the chaotic intersection of Higel Avenue and Ocean Boulevard. It is set to start in late June and boasts design features that will limit the number of crashes at the spot and will improve the turning and visibility problems, according to the county.
It will be a “vortex junction” system, which is a rapidly installed, modular, environmentally friendly (made of recycled materials) and removable structure than can be placed upon existing roads.
The installation of the mini roundabout is among the many improvements the county has put in place along what is considered a dangerous stretch of roadway for drivers and pedestrians in the northern part of the Key. They include drainage work, guardrails, warning signage, and speed cushions.
Back to the big boy
As for the larger roundabout across from Siesta Beach, public reaction to it has been mixed. The county conducted a survey last year and about 33% supported the roundabout, 32% wanted it left alone, and 30% wanted a straight “T” intersection.
“They are polarizing,” Anderson said of the concept of roundabouts, “but they are a proven safety countermeasure for situations similar to the intersection of Beach Road and Midnight Pass (Road).”
An emphasis on pedestrian safety within the roundabout’s design is something Anderson hopes will improve upon the public’s outlook. He said it will have dedicated crosswalks at each leg of the roundabout and wider-paved shoulders (10 feet in width) to each approach, instead of sod, to accommodate high bicycle traffic.
Splitter islands will also be in place for pedestrians after a short walk within each leg of the roundabout, offering a safety zone.
Other features include bike ramps between the sidewalks and roads, increased street lighting, and flashing rectangular beacons at controlled crosswalks.
“We’re doing everything to reduce pedestrian conflicts,” Anderson said. “We are directing them all to the most appropriate crosswalks.”
With the intersection often packed with beachgoers, the roundabout’s focus on pedestrian safety did receive appreciation from the board. However, the need for the roundabout in relation to vehicular traffic did bring on some skepticism.
“Of all the years I’ve lived out there – about 30 – I can’t remember an accident that caused me a delay. It’s not a troublesome intersection as far as traffic collisions are concerned,” Commissioner Mark Smith said. “But maybe it is with collisions with pedestrians. It’s extremely tricky for bikes. I’m hoping this is the solution to make it less tricky.”
Said late Commissioner Nancy Detert, “Yes, roundabouts cut down on fatalities – you have a fender bender instead of a fatality. But that’s not the problem we’re trying to solve here. We haven’t had a million deaths at that corner.
“The problem is we have a mixed use – bicycles, scooters, baby buggies, and cars. The only thing messier than this is the circle at the Arc de Triomphe in France. If you’ve ever seen anyone try to cross that street, it’s impossible.”
Meanwhile, Siesta Key resident Jann Webster addressed the board and asked that the community have some input, hopefully in the form of a public workshop, noting that she thinks there is no other roundabout in all of Sarasota where there are more pedestrians needing to cross. She fears the roundabout may only agitate already stressed-out drivers jockeying for a parking spot at Siesta Beach.
“They are driving and frazzled, pushing for that last spot,” Webster said. “It’s kind of naïve to think drivers are playing nice and yielding to merging traffic. It’s when you see drivers at their worst, focusing on getting 3 inches between them and the next car bumper — perhaps not looking out for pedestrians.”