‘Counter-flow’ proposal for Ringling Bridge and John Ringling Boulevard seen as one way to reduce traffic congestion during peak tourist season

Proposal among Longboat Town Commission priorities in Barrier Islands Traffic Study being completed by FDOT

This graphic shows how a third lane on the John Ringling Causeway and Ringling Boulevard could be designated for use by certain westbound vehicles during peak traffic times. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key

As the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) works to wrap up its Barrier Islands Traffic Study — which focuses partly on Longboat and Lido keys — the Town Commission of Longboat Key has included among its top priorities the implementation of a measure used in times of emergency evacuations in the face of approaching hurricanes.

Lincoln Tunnel drivers also are familiar with the option, according to a consultant working with FDOT on the study.

Isaac Brownman, director of the Longboat’s Public Works Department, noted last week during a joint meeting of the County Commission and the Longboat Town Commission that the local version has been dubbed the “John Ringling Causeway Counter-Flow.”

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for more information, Brownman this week provided copies of concepts the Sarasota consulting firm Stantec created for FDOT to show how such a traffic shift could ameliorate congestion between Longboat and Lido keys and downtown Sarasota.

Sumeet Kishnani, a professional engineer with Stantec, included details about the proposed “counter-flow” option in a Nov. 22, 2019 memo to Bessie Reina, one of the Barrier Islands Traffic Study project managers, who works out of FDOT’s District 1 office in Bartow.

This aerial map shows John Ringling Causeway and John Ringling Boulevard between downtown Sarasota and Coon Key. Image from Google Maps

“This memo describes recommended strategies to mitigate congestion during the highest-demand periods (“Peak Season”) at the Sarasota-Manatee Barrier Islands (including Anna Maria, Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach, Longboat Key, and Lido Key),” the document said.

The memo focused on options for what Stantec called the “Worst Two Weeks” of tourist season.

In regard to the counter-flow proposal, the memo explained that the John Ringling Causeway and John Ringling Boulevard, which motorists use between downtown Sarasota and St. Armands, have two lanes in each direction. “The demand on this road during ‘Peak Season’ is highly directional, with heavy traffic towards or away from the islands,” the memo continues. “Use of counter-flow would align the available roadway capacity with the directional demand distribution.”

The memo recommends a “combination of traffic management devices, signage, and public safety staff” to implement the counter-flow.

“Public safety staff and signage would clearly mark the start and end of counter-flow,” the memo said. Markers on the pavement “may be used to separate directional flow … This practice is used at a number of major event facilities, and at the Lincoln Tunnel [in New York] during daily commute hours to provide an exclusive bus lane into or out of Manhattan.”

For a long-range measure, the report continued, overhead signage could be installed to facilitate the process in the City of Sarasota.

This graphic shows one option for ending the counter-flow for westbound traffic. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key

“The counter-flow lane could be used as an exclusive bus lane, HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] lane, or open to all traffic to the islands. Assuming an additional 600-800 vehicles per hour on the signalized Ringling Boulevard corridor,” the report pointed out, “the counter-flow lane would allow for an extra 2,400 vehicles during a 3-hour peak period.”

The report included three graphics to provide further explanation.

The first graphic, focused on the peak morning travel period for westbound vehicles, calls for using Gulfstream Avenue as a one-way, westbound street west of the intersection at U.S. 41. The counter-flow would start at Sunset Drive, and it could end at Bird Key Drive, a second diagram shows.

A second option calls for the end of the counter-flow at Plymouth Harbor. A bus, for example, would enter the right-most, westbound lane at that point, the graphic shows.

This graphic shows a different option for ending the counter-flow for westbound vehicles. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key

The memo also included a section called Evaluation Considerations.

When considering proposals that might reduce traffic congestion, the memo explained, “it is helpful to consider” certain parameters.

Among those, the memo continued, is the fact that it is possible to maintain high volumes of through traffic over sustained periods “if demand can be managed” so the number of vehicles is just below the capacity of the roadway. “In most high-demand scenarios,” the memo said, “a small 10-20% reduction in demand will lead to significant reductions in the level of congestion because it will prevent the onset of severity of congestion (conditions where the demand exceeds capacity).”

The report further noted, “A rule of thumb is that a one-mile queue in one lane has only 200 vehicles. When working with situations where thousands or tens of thousands of vehicles [are] accessing the islands over a peak period, a small percentage change in user behavior will likely reduce traffic demand by hundreds or thousands of vehicles, which can substantially change the duration and length of queues.”

This graphic provides details about the Barrier Islands Traffic Study. Image courtesy FDOT

Begun in July 2017, the Barrier Islands Traffic Study is anticipated to be completed by this spring, Brownman of the Town of Longboat Key told the Sarasota county commissioners on Feb. 26.

With the urging of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), he noted, FDOT picked up the expense of the project. FDOT says the total amount is $1,977,966.

The goal of the study has been to explore and then recommend short-term, medium-term and long-term measures for reducing traffic congestion for drivers on the barrier islands in northern Sarasota County and in Manatee County.