MANATEE — Starting today, the state of Florida allows local governments to authorize the use of golf carts on public sidewalks.
Unfortunately, that won’t help the Ellenton residents who were the driving force behind the new state law — or anyone else in Manatee County whose subdivision isn’t already approved for golf cart use.
At least not yet.
Manatee County is not prepared to allow golf carts on public sidewalks because of federal funding requirements and the potential cost of upgrading sidewalks to accommodate the new traffic, public works staff members told county commissioners during a workshop Tuesday.
According to county staff, the state passed the law but left it up to the local governments to find a way to make it happen.
“This was a hollow victory,” county Public Works Director Ron Schulhofer said. “We’re looking for ways to do this, but it won’t happen on Sept. 1.”
Last fall, a group of mobile home residents from Colony Cove, Pelican Pier, Palm Grove, Ridgewood, Veranda Springs and The Gardens sought the use of golf carts on sidewalks along U.S. 301 to get to the Prime Outlets-Ellenton mall, local restaurants and drug stores.
The request came after the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office warned residents that driving golf carts on those sidewalks was against state law.
The residents petitioned Bradenton state legislators Rep. Ron Reagan and Sen. Mike Bennett, who led the way in getting the state statute changed. The statute takes effect today.
Sage Kamiya, the county’s traffic engineering division manager, told the commission the Federal Highway Safety Commission prohibits the use of motorized vehicles on pedestrian sidewalks built with federal funds. The sidewalks along U.S. 301 were built with federal funds, he said.
There is an exception process, Kamiya said, but no public entity has ever successfully petitioned for an exception. Ignoring the federal rules could jeopardize future federal funding, he said.
Still, Lynn Mercer, the past president of the homeowners association at Colony Cove, told commissioners the residents will continue to fight for the carts.
“We are willing to do whatever we need to. We did a lot of petitioning to the representatives to get that passed. If we need to do that again, we certainly will,” she said.
The state statute requires sidewalks be at least 8 feet wide, and carts cannot go faster than 15 mph. The sidewalks near the Ellenton group’s mobile homes are 8 feet wide, but other sidewalks farther north in an area under construction are narrower, Kamiya said.
Kamiya said it would cost about $1.6 million to widen sidewalks near the stretch of U.S. 301 currently under construction.
Commission Chairman Donna Hayes said she is concerned about the costs associated with preparing sidewalks for safe golf cart use throughout the county.
“This is no small endeavor,” Hayes said.
“Personally, I don’t see how we can move forward with this.”
But Commissioner Larry Bustle urged commissioners to use common sense. He said cart drivers would follow rules of the road and let each other pass when necessary.
“They’re going to be using caution,” he said. “If we try to solve all the issues raised today, we’ll never have a golf cart on a sidewalk.”
Kamiya vowed to explore the federal exception process and work with Florida Department of Transportation officials on golf cart guidelines and report back to the commission.