Focus group of regional leaders suggested as best means of tackling traffic congestion woes

Discussion among Longboat Key and Sarasota County commissioners references study FDOT will be undertaking

The Ringling Bridge is the connector between Longboat Key and the City of Sarasota. File photo
The Ringling Bridge is the connector between Longboat Key and the City of Sarasota. File photo

The creation of a focus group of Sarasota and Manatee county and municipal leaders to push for solutions may be the best hope for alleviating the seasonal traffic congestion that plagues the area, the chair of the Sarasota County Commission has suggested.

With the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) preparing to begin a Barrier Island to Mainland Traffic Study, Sarasota County Commission Chair Al Maio proposed the creation of the task force to act on whatever comes out of the report.

The discussion was part of an Oct. 25 joint meeting of the Sarasota County board and the Longboat Key Town Commission.

County Commissioner Charles Hines talked of how representatives of the Sarasota and Manatee county commissions collaborated two years ago to push for a means of easing traffic congestion at University Parkway and Interstate 75, especially in light of the fact the region will host tens of thousands of international visitors next September for the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Nathan Benderson Park. (See the related story in this issue.)

Leaders of the two boards went to Tallahassee to plead their case, Hines explained. As a result, the construction of the diverging diamond interchange “moved forward 15 years,” he said.

Longboat Key is about 10 miles long. Image from Google Maps
Longboat Key is about 10 miles long. Image from Google Maps

Longboat Key Town Manager Dave Bullock raised the congestion issue by pointing out that for 20 years, “I was on this side of the bay [as a county employee], and I used to get a kick out of Longboat Key complaining about traffic, but they only complained for three months, and then they went quiet.” The matter “wasn’t taken as seriously by the mainland side as it might have been,” he continued.

For the past five years, however, Bullock has been working at the Longboat Key Town Hall, and he has seen “the progression of the congestion,” as he put it. Noting that he lives close to the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, Bullock said, “In March, it is absolutely an hour-and-a-half to get from Town Hall to my house.”
If he tries to drive home via the north end of Longboat, he added, it takes him close to two hours in March.

The island is only 10 miles long, Bullock pointed out. “Some days, congestion from the north end and congestion from the south end meet, and that gives you some sense of the scale [of the problem].”

Bullock explained that he is on the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) committee charged with hiring the consultant to undertake the FDOT Barrier Island to Mainland Traffic Study. The analysis is a priority for the MPO and FDOT, he added, and funding for it has been made available.

Both short-term and long-term solutions are needed, Bullock continued, with development having intensified on both the Manatee and Sarasota county ends of the island. The City of Sarasota has approved “many thousands of new condominiums [along with] a million or so square feet of [new] commercial [space],” he pointed out. Yet, Manatee County has about 10,000 new units and a couple of million of square feet of new commercial space coming on Cortez Road, which is the northern access to Longboat Key, he said.

Both the Sarasota and Manatee tourism agencies “have done a fabulous job” enticing tourists to the region, Bullock told the boards, “and some of the impacts of that are shown on the highway.” Yet, he said, people who visit the counties do not want to sit in traffic for two hours “just to go to a play or a movie …”

Bullock added, “I’ve talked to [representatives of] barrier islands around the state, and many of them are facing the same problem … There is no magic bullet here.”

(From left) Members of the Longboat Town Commission are Irwin Pastor, Vice Mayor Terry Gans, Phil Younger, Mayor Jack Duncan, Armando Linde, Jack Daly and Ed Zunz. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key
(From left) Members of the Longboat Town Commission are Irwin Pastor, Vice Mayor Terry Gans, Phil Younger, Mayor Jack Duncan, Armando Linde, Jack Daly and Ed Zunz. Image courtesy Town of Longboat Key

Longboat Mayor Jack Duncan pointed out, “The reality is that the area is overwhelmed by ‘pinch points,’ where traffic comes to a standstill, no matter where you are, no matter what you do.”

Noting that he has lived in the county for 14 years, Duncan concurred with Bullock’s earlier statement that after season ends, “then everything calms down and we start to forget about [the congestion].”

“I think what it really requires is regional leadership,” Duncan said.

The Barrier Island to Mainland Traffic Study probably will not be completed until 2019, Longboat Vice Mayor Terry Gans pointed out, given how long such state projects typically take.

After it has been released, Duncan added, that he fears it will sit on a shelf.

Sarasota County Commission Chair Al Maio. File photo
Sarasota County Commission Chair Al Maio. File photo

Maio concurred with Gans — unless, Maio said, the town and county commissioners, working with their Manatee counterparts, form a focus group “and make it crystal clear to all elected officials … that the group is not going away, and let’s dissect and dive into the report when it comes out.”

County Commissioner Carolyn Mason also pointed out that the board members should keep in mind the needs of their constituents, and not let their “egos and personalities” stand in the way. “It’s about the people that elected us — what’s best for them.”

Another suggestion

Traffic congestion has been a recurring theme during recent Sarasota City Commission meetings, as well. Periodically, correspondence from constituents on the subject shows up in the city’s public email folder.

Just last week, a resident sent an email to City Manager Tom Barwin and the commissioners with the subject line, “Ringling Bridge Congestion.”

The writer asked whether any of them has thought about using 10th, 12th or 17th street to serve as the primary connector between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301.

Congestion on U.S. 41 at Ringling Boulevard “is caused by the exodus [from] the barrier islands in the afternoon,” the writer pointed out, and “the bottleneck starts on Fruitville Rd.” Yet, Fruitville and University Parkway are the only east-west thoroughfares, the writer continued. If drivers had other options, he added, “Fruitville Rd. could be more pedestrian friendly, and the congestion would be alleviated.”

City Manager Tom Barwin replied, “The peak hours, peak season traffic issues you have raised in your email are being reviewed.

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo
City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

“The ideas you have suggested are being forwarded via this email to our engineering department for future consideration/analysis. We are also working with Longboat Key, the Florida Department of Transportation and the [MPO] toward making improvements whenever and where ever feasible,” Barwin added.

In the meantime, Barwin continued, “[B]eginning in December FDOT will be making some improvements on the US 41 segment between Fruitville and [Gulfstream Avenue], which should provide for better traffic flow.”

Among them will be a dedicated northbound, right-turn slip lane from northbound U.S. 41 to eastbound Fruitville Road, along with a center median from Fruitville to Gulfstream, Barwin explained. “The median will eliminate left turns from both northbound and southbound traffic lanes which slow/stop through traffic and cause backups during peak hours,” Barwin added.

Most of that work is scheduled for evenings, Barwin wrote, “to minimize the conflict with heavy traffic during the season.”