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Longboat Key Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021 6 days ago

FDOT plans pilot program for Gulf of Mexico Drive crosswalk improvements

Town and state work on crosswalk experiment to see if trips across GMD can be less perilous.
by: Mark Bergin Staff Writer

Longboat Key residents Sheila and Jack Marks enjoy riding their bikes throughout the town.

They wear helmets.

They often wear high-visibility clothing.

They stick to the town’s multiuse pathways along Gulf of Mexico Drive instead of competing for space on the roadway.

They also routinely cross GMD with the help of the town’s push-button signals that flash bright yellow lights to warn approaching motorists of something they should already know: Pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk.

Still, the Marks are a wary couple.

“We always wait until the cars are stopped,” Sheila Marks said, echoing a widely repeated safety warning for pedestrians.

Longboat Key residents Sheila and Jack Marks say they wait for cars to stop to safely cross Gulf of Mexico Drive.

Pedestrian safety along GMD has long been a discussion throughout the town, with tales of near-misses — or worse — hard to avoid, prompting the town to work with Florida Department of Transportation on a pilot project to bring two new styles of crosswalk signals to Gulf of Mexico Drive in the next two years.

The state wants to monitor before and after peak-season results by:

  • Adding in-roadway lighting at GMD and Longboat Club Road near the Country Club Shores IV North entrance. FDOT said it would cost about $76,800 for construction, which could start this fiscal year.
  • Replacing an existing rectangular rapid flashing beacon with a new pedestrian hybrid beacon at GMD at Bayfront Park. FDOT said it would cost about $352,500 for construction, which could start in fiscal year 2023.

While the proposed crosswalk near Bayfront Park would have red lights to get cars to stop for pedestrians crossing the street, the lights in front of the Country Club Shores IV North entrance would remain yellow.

It’s a point that’s been often raised.

“That’s ridiculous. It’s like if anyone needs the red lights, it’s the one over here at Longboat Club Road because there’s been so many near misses of people,” Country Club Shores Unit IV Association President Lynn Larson said.

Two months after the crosswalk signals were installed on GMD in 2016, a pedestrian was struck in a crosswalk near Country Club Shores. The town immediately demanded upgrades or the removal of the crosswalks. FDOT made the upgrades but did not agree to add small medians near the crosswalk sites, designed to further heighten driver awareness.

There are six on-demand crosswalks on Longboat Key that allow pedestrians to find their way across a thoroughfare with speed limits as high as 45 mph. That corridor also hosts 12 beach access points, according to the town website, many of which are more than 100 yards from the nearest crosswalk.

In roadway lighting: Similar to a crossing system in use on South Osprey Avenue near Hillview Street in Sarasota.

Country Club Shores resident Chris Sachs explained how he’s witnessed several close encounters. In May, Sachs said he was almost hit while trying to cross GMD while going to the beach.

“I think because of daylight hours that yellow is hard to see, and that’s why we’ve always lobbied for a red,” Sachs said.

Sachs also pointed out how a crossing on U.S. 41 near First Street in Sarasota utilizes the red-lighted crossing to get cars to stop and let pedestrians safely cross.

“You’re certainly glad that they’re going to do something about it, but yellow lights in the ground I would think during the daylight are even less visible than the ones that are currently in existence,” Sachs said.

FDOT Senior Project Manager Walter Breuggeman explained to town commissioners on Oct. 4 why rectangular rapid flashing beacon can’t use red lights. He said RRFBs are a proprietary product to serve as an advanced warning to drivers to yield to pedestrians.

“Our RRFBs are actually governed by the Federal Highway Commission,” Breuggeman said.

The Federal Highway Commission issued a memo in March 2018 specifying how an RRFB can be used.

“The memo specifically states, ‘Each RRFB unit shall consist of two rapidly flashed, rectangular-shaped yellow indications with an LED array-based light source,’” Breuggeman said. “So that restricts us to where we have to use yellow the way you see them.

Pedestrian hybrid beacons are formerly known as the high-intensity activated crosswalks: A traffic control device that requires motorists to stop when the light is red. PHBs are utilized along U.S. 41 near First Street in Sarasota.

“It restricts us. We cannot use red for our RRFBs.”

Town Manager Tom Harmer said the switch to a red-light system would require changing out the town’s six RRFB crosswalks to a pedestrian hybrid beacon system, which was formerly known as high-intensity activated crosswalk, or HAWK system.

The town of Longboat Key has six RRFB pedestrian crossings along GMD at:

  • Country Club Shores Phase IV (North entrance) and Longboat Club Road (North entrance);
  • Just north of the Diplomat and Turtle Coffee Bar;
  • Bayfront Park;
  • Banyan Bay Club just north of Sandham Place (5200 block of GMD);
  • North of Companion Way at Cedars West (5600 block GMD); and
  • Between Broadway Street and North Shore Road.

Longboat Key Police Department spokesperson Tina Adams said police have issued 14 citations for crosswalk violations in 2021,  the majority at the crosswalk located at GMD and Longboat Club Road.

Breuggeman also explained how the town’s existing RRFB at GMD and Country Club Road makes it less expensive to add the in-ground lighting whereas FDOT would change out the entire crosswalk system near Bayfront Park.

“With the PHB, that is a more in-depth signal, and it’s also overhead, which has a mast arm,” Breuggeman said. “It’s a totally different system, and this case, it’s an overhead mast arm with a significant foundation, drill shaft and so forth to hold the mast arm, so it’s a lot more to construct the overhead mast arm.”

To measure the systems’ effectiveness, FDOT traffic services engineer Steven Davis said the state typically mounts a video camera to monitor drivers’ reactions to the activated signal.

Those videos are then analyzed and conclusions drawn about crosswalk warning effectiveness.

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

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