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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020 1 year ago

Islanders to city: Fix 41-bridge backups now

Call city commissioners, and demand they do more to eliminate the backups. Their inaction is hurting the economy.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

For three decades — at least! — from January until Easter, the residents of and visitors to Longboat Key, St. Armands Key, Lido Key and Lido Shores endure this annual ritual: weekly weekend traffic lines, at a standstill, that stretch from the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue all the way back to St. Armands Circle and sometimes as far back as the entrance to the Longboat Key Club and Resort.

On rare occasions, but enough to annoy even the most patient souls, we have seen traffic backed up from U.S. 41 all the way up Gulf of Mexico Drive to Bay Isles Parkway.

Longtime residents of the keys know this is just part of life here.

Nonetheless, it’s stunning how unresponsive the city of Sarasota and the Florida Department of Transportation are. Neither organization appears to have a wit of a clue about the concept of “customer experience” and the consequences of customers having a lousy experience.

Take this past weekend, for instance. St. Armands Circle Park hosted the 17th annual St. Armands Circle Art Festival. (Make note it was the 17th annual — 17 consecutive years, same time every year.)

It was promoted in multiple media, and art devotees and exhibitors put it on their calendars well in advance. The point is: A lot of people knew it was coming. And when the signage went up on the Circle, residents of the Keys knew traffic through the entire weekend was going to be a three-day bottleneck.

And it was. Saturday and Sunday afternoons in particular. It was the 17th annual ritual: Parked cars crowded into the swale from the Circle to Plymouth Harbor, and traffic creeped bumper to bumper at single-digit speeds from St. Armands Circle to U.S. 41 for hours. Hours.


Customer experience

Mind you, there were several Sarasota police cars in sight and an officer or two helping direct cars and people around the Circle.

But there was not one officer — or anyone from the Florida Highway Patrol or the Florida Department of Transportation — throughout the weekend lifting a finger to help alleviate the backups from U.S. 41 to St. Armands Circle.

That takes us back to “customer experience,” the No. 1 concept and expectation in business today. It’s not good enough for a restaurant just to have good food. It must provide a great “experience” from start to finish — the wait staff, decor, cleanliness of the restrooms, comfort of the seats, music, decibel levels of the noise, prices, parking, etc.

Customer experience is trumping everything in every industry.

And the same applies to your city and community.

Over the past few years, we’ve reported how Realtors have heard prospective buyers say they’re going elsewhere because of their experiences with traffic getting on and off the keys.

Likewise, you can imagine the first-time visitors to Sarasota and the arts festival last weekend encountering the Ringling Bridge traffic. You can bet, as they creeped toward the mainland, they made comments or thought: “What is up with this?” and “Remind me next year when it’s time for the art festival not to go.”

And when they told their neighbors about their experience, there you go — a bad review spreads from one to another to another. In a community whose major export is tourism (and second-home buyers), poor customer experiences inevitably will produce a downward pull on the economy. It’s simple business: If you lose customers, eventually, you go out of business.

It’s obvious Sarasota city officials and FDOT officials don’t see it that way. They never have. But they should.

They are just as responsible for creating a positive customer experience as every restaurant, retailer, hotel and business is responsible for creating the right reputation for Greater Sarasota.

So it’s time.

It’s time the residents, business owners and taxpayers of Longboat Key, St. Armands Key, Lido Key and Lido Shores let their public officials know they expect better — a lot better.


Barrage Barwin, FDOT

You know how this works: Public officials do nothing until their constituencies start pounding them with unfavorable feedback and repeated requests for action. And that’s what is needed to spur Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin, Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and FDOT into action. Barrage them with requests and demands for traffic officers at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream in the afternoons on weekends during season.

To be sure, residents know these bridge backups are not a daily occurrence. But the expectation is that, especially when city officials know about upcoming events, they will take appropriate steps to provide their customers with a good experience.

It might be that the backups can’t be eliminated completely. But at least with an officer or two directing traffic, it shows the city is making an effort.

We did not contact Barwin, DiPino or FDOT for their explanations of why they do nothing. The responses would be the predictable: “We don’t have the manpower.” “It’s not in the budget.” “There’s not much we can do.”

But the truth is that old saying about priorities: The only reason you don’t complete a task or a job is because you didn’t make it a priority.

This is a priority. It’s the economic health of this community.

Call or write the Sarasota city commissioners today.

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