Ensuring resiliency of existing transportation systems and designing new, streamlined ones were among top hopes.
On April 22, local government officials from all around the greater Sarasota-Manatee metropolitan area — including the barrier island communities — gathered to address community issues and transportation priorities for the next 25 years.
Hosted by the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, presentations during the 2045 long-range transportation plan workshop covered such topics as community-identified concerns, federal and state priorities, local road priorities, feasible future improvements and more.
The reason for the 25-year timeframe, according to the MPO, is based on the average timeline for a state-financed project to work its way from concept, through planning and implementation, to the final product. And, as each community in the area has its own set of needs, the workshop provided the opportunity for the MPO to begin folding a wide variety of priorities into a cohesive plan.
“Proper planning sets the right foundation,” said L.K. Nandam, the secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 1, “So it’s very exciting to talk about the future of this region as we talk about this long-range transportation planning process.”
Most of the barrier island communities present at the forum, such as Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria Island, shared several common concerns: mitigating sea level rise, continued development and dealing with increased population density.
But Town Manager Tom Harmer of Longboat Key identified the island’s general reliance on the Florida Department of Transportation and other adjacent communities — such as the city of Sarasota — as a major Longboat-specific concern, particularly as development in nearby communities can continue to have an impact on Longboat’s transportation capabilities.
Harmer also cited primary access through Gulf of Mexico Drive as a wider concern for Longboat residents, tacking on that designing some sort of “marketable island-wide transit” is necessary, particularly as Longboat Key is in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.
“In relation to public transit, we have two completely different scenarios on the island,” he said. “It’s two completely different types of service.”
Sarasota's bus service still consists of fixed route service between Bay Isles and downtown Sarasota, though systemwide changes could affect Longboat Key service in the future. Manatee County dropped fixed route service in 2016, converting to a ride-on-demand system. Harmer said some kind of cooperative, island-wide system that could connect to Manatee's larger route network on the north and Sarasota's larger route network on the south would make sense.
According to Harmer, Longboat residents and officials did not identify other “local road priorities” in the same manner that other communities did, as Longboat Key has one state road and all other roads are primarily residential neighborhoods.
As presented to the MPO, Longboat Key officials have identified the continued need for a comprehensive plan regarding island access during peak season. Like many other local beaches and barrier islands, traffic congestion when entering and exiting the town has remained a consistent issue.
Local and state officials are also cooperating in the Barrier Island Traffic study, or BITS, which was set in motion by FDOT to “perform a comprehensive study to determine and recommend potential solutions to motorized and non-motorized circulation issues on the barrier islands.”
Implementation of those resulting recommendations, Harmer says, will continue to be critical to Longboat Key and its residents.
Finally, Harmer cited stormwater management as it pertains to Gulf of Mexico Drive as a concern due to its recurring flooding during major rain events.
Federal and state road priorities
Officials reportedly want to implement an overarching corridor plan for Gulf of Mexico Drive, the one state road that runs along the spine of Longboat Key. A “context sensitive design” including roundabouts, bufferedbike lanes, multi-use trails and landscaped medians is potentially on the horizon.
But off-island state roads, Harmer said, are equally important, as they can have “a net positive or negative impact” on movement on and off the island during season.
For this reason, officials are looking toward the possible implementation of flex lanes during all future bridge improvements, as well as elevated pedestrian crossings on Gulf of Mexico Drive, Cortez Road, the U.S. 41 corridor and more.
Safety, functionality and quality of life were the three main focuses Harmer says Longboat leaders plan to align themselves with in moving toward the future.
Officials plan to continue working with FDOT on the implementation of the short-term and long-term recommendations from the BITS, leading up to 2045.
Otherwise, designing and installing a “single, unified, marketable transit system” on the island, Harmer says, as well as maintaining all evacuation routes in “optional, function form,” will be critical in ensuring the long-range success of Longboat’s transportation systems for its residents.
“We understand mobility,” Harmer said, “And we understand it’s more than just cars.”