Longboat Key leaders focused on short-term and cost-efficient strategies to ease traffic congestion between island and downtown Sarasota

Concerns remain about design of roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue

Pedestrian crossings of streets on St. Armands Circle can contribute to traffic backups, especially during the height of tourist season. File photo

With the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) not expected to complete the Barrier Islands Traffic Study until the spring of 2019, leaders of the Town of Longboat Key have been putting their focus on low-cost strategies that could be implemented relatively quickly to ease traffic congestion.

That was part of the news the town’s public works director recently gave the Sarasota County Commission.

Among those strategies would be the return of “ambassadors” to St. Armands Circle, on the quadrants that have the most impact on traffic flow to and from Longboat Key, Isaac Brownman told the County Commission during a joint meeting of the town and county boards on Oct. 24.

He emphasized that he was not just talking about “crossing guards” to help ensure the safety of pedestrians in the popular shopping district, “but people who can act as ambassadors for the area.”

As demonstrated during an FDOT pilot program in 2016, Brownman pointed out, those ambassadors helped ameliorate traffic congestion and provided general guidance to visitors trying to find their way around St. Armands. They contributed to a “more resort-like atmosphere” in the shopping district, he said.

The ambassadors helped prevent multiple crossings of the same street in a short space of time, preventing extensive vehicle backups. They also worked to ensure drivers saw pedestrians preparing to make those crossings.

A graphic shows the area covered by the Barrier Islands Traffic Study undertaken by FDOT for Sarasota and Manatee counties and the Town of Longboat Key. Image courtesy FDOT

Yet another proposal for which the town is advocating, Brownman continued, is the removal of “some of the parking spaces on the Lido Key leg” between Longboat Key and downtown Sarasota.

Those are “previously identified parking spaces,” he noted. Their elimination would facilitate traffic flow through St. Armands. “We don’t know how far we’re going to get with that,” he conceded.

A Sept. 27 memo to the Town Commission from Town Manager Tom Harmer — included in the agenda packet for the Oct. 24 joint meeting — suggested that that initiative could be timed to coincide with the opening of the City of Sarasota’s new parking garage on North Adams Drive on St. Armands.

Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert alluded to the town’s proposal during a meeting of her board earlier this year, indicating city leaders are wholly opposed to it.

Brownman also told the county commissioners that the Town of Longboat Key remains concerned about FDOT’s plans for a roundabout at the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 in downtown Sarasota.

Last year, when the two commissions met, then-Longboat Town Manager Dave Bullock discussed the fact that the latest roundabout design at that time included 11 pedestrian access points. “There’s 11 opportunities for pedestrians to stop traffic,” he added.

These are the short-term proposals listed in the final Phase 2 report of the study regarding the southern access to Longboat Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Oct. 24, Brownman told the county commissioners that questions continue to be raised about “how that [roundabout] will really function in the real world.” The town has hired its own, third-party consultant, he noted, to review the analysis of the work FDOT has completed on the project. From what town leaders understand, Brownman pointed out, “There’s a lot of momentum behind [the roundabout plan] to move it forward.”

The work of the town’s consultant should be completed within a few weeks, Brownman said. Then it will be presented to the Town Commission.

Harmer’s Sept. 27 memo pointed out that the roundabout would be one of several designed to work in tandem along the U.S. 41 corridor.

Furthermore, Brownman told the county commissioners, town leaders would like for FDOT staff to consider the construction of elevated pedestrian crossings at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue, “to help remove the pedestrian conflicts from that intersection.”

At the outset of the Oct. 24 discussion, Harmer explained that the Barrier Islands Traffic Study was initiated at the request of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Begun in 2017, he said, it comprises three phases, the first two of which have been completed. “I think the end date is a little bit open,” Harmer added, noting that Phase 3 was yet to get underway.

Phase 1 involved summarizing previous study recommendations, as noted in a Sept. 27 memo from Harmer to the Town Commission. Phase 2 focused on data collection and observation, as well as preliminary recommendations.

“We’re not looking for one ‘silver bullet,’ so to speak,” Brownman pointed out to the county commissioners on Oct. 24. The town’s goal, he said, is the implementation of a multitude of options to ease traffic congestion.

Among long-term proposals, Brownman said the town is emphasizing that any future bridge replacements include a flexible lane that could be used for high-occupancy vehicles, bicycles or public transit, for examples. FDOT has been receptive to that suggestion, he added, as it works on a replacement for the Cortez Bridge in Manatee County.

Facets of the study

These are mid-term proposals in the final Phase 2 report. Image courtesy Sarasota County

According to the FDOT webpages devoted to the Barrier Islands Traffic Study, the final Phase 2 reports on proposals to reduce traffic congestion were released in October.

The ambassadors program Brownman mentioned is listed among the short-term projects as follows: “Pedestrian Managers to increase capacity during peak season platooning of Pedestrians,” with the expense noted as “TBD,” or “To Be Decided.”

Among other short-term projects are the following:

  • At the intersection of John Ringling Parkway and Gulfstream Avenue, place law enforcement officers to direct traffic south [and] to spread it out to alternative east-west corridors, such as Bahia Vista Street and Webber Street. That also has “TBD” status.
  • Add HAWK signals to increase pedestrian safety at the intersections of U.S. 41/Fruitville Road and U.S. 41/Gulfstream Avenue.

FDOT constructed a HAWK (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk) signal earlier this year at the intersection of U.S. 41 and First Street; it went into service the last week of June. FDOT and city leaders have noted that the system is designed to improve pedestrian safety by providing a stronger alert to drivers about people preparing to enter a crosswalk.

  • On St. Armands Circle, add pavement markings and advanced signage to warn drivers of upcoming lane drops and lane designations. Related proposals include the elimination of “Back-to-back crosswalks”; and potential construction of a third lane in the Northeast Quadrant to allow for a westbound to northbound bypass lane, one shared westbound to northbound/westbound to westbound lane, and one westbound to southbound or eastbound lane.

• Increasing the space for vehicles waiting to turn westbound onto John Ringling Parkway from Ken Thompson Parkway, “to reduce queue spillover and blocking between westbound right- and left-turning vehicles.”