Observer Magazine September 2016
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor
As officials work to alleviate traffic troubles, an activist group wants to change the way the city accounts for the impacts of new growth.
On Sept. 22, during one of the slowest periods of the year in Sarasota, Eileen Normile spoke to more than 100 residents concerned about traffic.
Those residents gathered at the Selby Library auditorium to hear a discussion on issues surrounding the Vue Sarasota Bay development at the first public meeting organized by the resident activist group STOP. One of the group’s focuses is traffic, a topic Normile believes isn’t getting enough attention from city leaders.
“I think when people come back this season, there’s going to be a lot of concern and a lot of complaining,” Normile said. “I think it should be the No. 1 issue, congestion.”
STOP member Kate Lowman speaks at the Selby Auditorium as part of the group’s first public meeting, a discussion of the Vue Sarasota Bay development and city policy.
With STOP, she’s concentrating on how the city accounts for the impact of new developments on the road network.
The city requires a “transportation impact analysis,” which examines the number of trips a project is expected to generate on major roadways nearby. It’s used to determine whether a developer has to pay concurrency fees, money used to restore the city’s roads up to an established level of service if the project would significantly degrade the quality of a street segment.
Normile, a former city commissioner, wants the city to require a broader analysis of how new growth impacts the road network — one that’s simpler to understand and easier to use as a long-term planning tool.
Since 2011, those studies have determined that no new project in Sarasota has had a big enough impact to require the developer to pay concurrency fees.
In large part, that’s because the state changed its traffic concurrency regulations in 2011. Before, a developer building a large project near a failing road network would have to pay to restore the road to the city’s established level of service.
Now, even if a road is failing, the developer only has to pay for his or her “proportional fair share” of the traffic — in other words, the congestion the project would create if the road were already at the established level of service.
“We can’t make them be held responsible for any existing deficits that are out there,” City Engineer Alex DavisShaw said.
The city is aware there are shortcomings in the current system. In 2014, the City Commission approved the creation of a multimodal impact fee on new development. Although builders haven’t had to pay concurrency fees, other roadway impact fees required a developer to pay for the number of trips that would be added to the road network.
“We can’t make them be held responsible for any existing deficits that are out there.” — Alex DavisShaw
Before, that money could only be used for road improvements, such as street widening. The multimodal impact fee allows the city to use those funds for other transportation improvements, such as bike lanes or bus shelters.
Even if a project triggers concurrency fees, DavisShaw said that’s not necessarily good for the city. Those fees still must be spent on road improvements near the project area. Because the developer is only responsible for a proportional share, the city may have to pay for an expensive and unpopular road-widening effort.
“If that improvement was to widen Main Street and add a turn lane, would that be an improvement the community would like to see?” DavisShaw said.
The city is considering eliminating the traffic study requirement for a project unlikely to trigger concurrency fees based on the past 13 years of development. Even the Vue, which includes 141 condo units and 255 hotel rooms, did not incur those fees.
Before waiving traffic studies, though, Normile thinks the city could adjust its formulas to generate more concurrency fees.
“With certain roads, you have to think outside the box and improve them, or we’ll just have a parking lot,” Normile said.
“We don’t need the inducements anymore. We need to be fair.” — Eileen Normile
Although the state mandates the proportionate share standard, the city can adjust some concurrency regulations itself. Normile wants to eliminate incentives put in place during slow periods for development.
“We don’t need the inducements anymore,” Normile said. “We need to be fair.”
One go-to example is the Sarasota Bayside project, planned for the former Sarasota Quay property. The first phase will include up to 695 condo units, 12,000 square feet of office space and 70,000 square feet of retail.
The studies identify the number of new trips a new development will create, but the traffic previously generated at the same site is also taken into consideration — even if that previous property has been demolished.
The Sarasota Bayside study says the first phase will generate 502 trips during the evening peak hours. Rounding up, the city’s math says the developer can write off 503 trips, 60% of the peak-hour traffic the Quay generated before it was demolished in 2009.
“Their math actually shows the traffic will go down,” Normile said. “Those 500 estimated cars will be on the road on and near the Fruitville and U.S. 41 intersection. You may notice them once the Quay is built.”
Normile has other problems with the city’s traffic metrics, but she’s also concerned that traffic studies don’t translate into easy-to-understand planning documents.
STOP wants to require developers to provide a traffic study that shows a project’s “real-world” impact. She believes more careful consideration of the city’s future infrastructure needs would benefit all parties.
“I’m sure a lot of these developers have multiple projects in the city,” Normile said. “Whatever benefits the city benefits them, so I think they’d also be happy to have better planning.”
“Since the recession, we haven’t been staffed up to have a lot of long-term planning.” — Tim Litchet
Tim Litchet, the city’s director of neighborhood and development services, said city staff has focused more on individual projects since the loss of a dedicated planning department about a decade ago.
“Since the recession, we haven’t been staffed up to have a lot of long-term planning,” Litchet said.
The city’s 2016-17 budget includes plans to re-establish a planning department, one sign leaders are aware of the stress traffic is creating for residents.
Headed into another season, STOP is hoping to create an even greater sense of urgency among city leaders to take action.
“There isn’t any more time to study and think it over,” Normile said. “It’s time to actually do something.”