Gridlock traffic on Tuesday prompted frustration among drivers.
Longboat Key leaders’ concerns about traffic delays in downtown Sarasota came to fruition Tuesday with the implementation of a new traffic pattern at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
The new traffic configuration is to accommodate the construction of a roundabout at the downtown intersection.
Longboat Key At-Large Commissioner BJ Bishop said she received emails from concerned residents about traveling back and forth over the Ringling Bridge.
“They were incredibly frustrated and angry, obviously, because they couldn’t get off Longboat,” Bishop said. “The people that I heard from had missed doctor’s appointments, and saw absolutely no reason for it to be this backlogged.”
Longboat Key resident Bob Gault offered an analogy for the roundabout construction after driving through the area.
“This like doing open-heart surgery,” Gault said. “It’s the difference between a mechanic working on a car engine and is certain that it’s stopped, and a surgeon who has to do open-heart surgery on a beating heart.”
New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows 69.7% of Longboat Key’s full-time population of 7,505 is age 65 and older.
Fire Chief Paul Dezzi said he is concerned with the bumper-to-bumper traffic, which started Tuesday even before approaching St. Armands Circle. Conditions have improved since, with a series of small adjustments. Specifically, Dezzi mentioned the difficulties first responders have had when transporting non-emergent patients, meaning firefighter-paramedics cannot use the lights and sirens on an ambulance or firetruck.
“If we have a patient that’s in the back of the ambulance as an emergent patient, we’re going to (have) lights and sirens,” Dezzi said. “We’re going to be delayed, but it won’t be that much delayed in my opinion because we will have our lights and sirens on.”
Dezzi estimated more than 85% of the patients transported by the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department go to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, including the portions of Longboat in both Sarasota and Manatee counties.
“The concern I have would be with going to the hospital with an emergent patient is one lane going south from Gulfstream (Avenue), and it’s going to be backed up and we have lights and sirens on, we have to get around those cars,” Dezzi said.
FDOT holds virtual meeting
On Wednesday morning, Florida Department of Transportation personnel held a virtual meeting to discuss the U.S. 41-Gulfstream Avenue roundabout construction.
“The bumper-to-bumper traffic we’re expecting to mitigate as we go forward,” said CDM Smith senior project engineer Chris Pecor.
Pecor said traffic flowed better Wednesday morning compared to Tuesday night. He said many people had to go through intersections twice — U.S. 41 and Gulstream Avenue; St. Armands Circle; and U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road — because they were unaware of the detours with the route changes.
FDOT plans to add signage and Sarasota police will continue to help direct traffic. Pecor also mentioned minor modifications to create a more efficient traffic flow.
“We’re going to modify the signal at Cocoanut (Avenue) to basically allow more gaps in the traffic coming from Fruitville (Road) that merges into (U.S.) 41,” he said. “Another one was at Sunset (Drive) where we were able to allow that southbound to westbound traffic to actually go in the same movement that the eastbound traffic is coming off the island.”
Pecor asked people who live in Golden Gate Point to return home from the south.
“So, the 10 months is the overall timeframe that we expect this general configuration, meaning the crossovers…and the northbound and southbound being detoured out of the intersection, we expect that to be 10 months,” Pecor said.
However, Pecor said there are sub-phases for the contractor to make minor shifts to the traffic pattern within the current configuration. He said that process would happen within 100 days.
FDOT leaders are planning to hold another virtual meeting in two weeks.
“This was a major shift. Understandably, (there is) a lot of frustration,” Pecor said. “With a major shift like this, it takes a couple days to actually fully implement.”
Longboat Key’s plan
Bishop said Longboat Key leaders are planning to meet with FDOT representatives and city of Sarasota leaders to try to mitigate the situation before the start of snowbird season, when beachside populations swell.
“I have serious concerns about health, welfare and safety because if traffic is that gridlocked, how do our ambulances safely navigate?” Bishop said.
Dezzi said he would look at the data the next few days to determine if first responders should take transport patients to Blake Memorial Hospital in Bradenton instead of SMH.
“Transport time is what we’re looking at,” Dezzi said. “If we have a delay in the transport time…Let’s say it takes us 10 minutes to get there from the south end of the key, it taking us 45 minutes to an hour to get to the hospital, non-emergent, we have a problem. We've got to fix that.”
Dezzi also said he would consider examining the fire rescue department’s criteria to call a third-party emergency helicopter based in North Port to transport trauma patients.
“That would be something that I haven’t spoken to anybody really about, but that’s something I’m considering,” Dezzi said.
For years, Longboat Key leaders have expressed their concerns about the $8.6 million project. Construction is expected to continue until fall 2022.
Bishop advocated for urgency to address the traffic woes even in the short term.
“We can’t wait ’til season,” Bishop said. “This needs to be taken care of now.”
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