The causes of traffic congestion are easy to identify, but Tom Freiwald and Jack Daly say they are hard to fix.
If there’s one thing every Longboater has in common, it’s dealing with traffic. North end, south end or weekend, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the deluge of vehicles, especially during the months of high season.
And few Longboaters know more about the town’s traffic than Tom Freiwald, the chair of the Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force.
Florida is the 22nd largest state in the U.S. by area, with the third-largest population, a figure that continues to grow. And most of the population resides on or near the coast. As the Florida Department of Transportation and its consultants compiled the now completed Barrier Island Traffic Study to fish for solutions to congestion issues like the ones on Longboat, Freiwald kept tabs.
Then he shared his own report about the study, which made some 70 recommendations ranging from some newly painted lines on pavement to an aerial-gondola system from Sarasota's bayfront to St. Armands Key.
One of the focuses of the Task Force and of Town Commissioner Jack Daly, Longboat Key's representative on the Metropolitan Planning Organization and with the steering committee of the BITS, is the intersection of Gulf Drive and Cortez Road. At the urging of town officials, the intersection was included on the BITS list of recommendations without specific idea on how to improve it.
"The consistent response we’ve gotten through the BITS process is nothing can be done,'' Daly said of the intersection at a Dec. 2 Town Commission meeting. "Initially they were arguing, with some basis obviously, that right-of-way cost concerns, without identifying those at all, are the basic reason why they are not addressing it.''
All of those 70 recommended changes, which include a center turn lane along Gulf of Mexico Drive opposite Country Club Shores, are now up to individual jurisdictions to prioritize and for which to seek funding. Town officials are already working to complete design of that turn lane project.
Daly said the MPO recently OK'd a continuation of the barrier-island focused discussions with the goal of seeking some kind of solution, especially now that designs are coming together for a replacement bridge at Cortez Road that will feed that intersection. A flex-lane that would provide extra traffic capacity is a possibility for the bridge as it works its way through the planning process.
FDOT’s five-year plan for traffic improvement on Longboat itself features one suggestion for Longboat Key: the addition of left turn lanes for entrance into Country Club Shores, which the town is proceeding with on design work.
“Unfortunately, about 95% of the things that FDOT is working on is ways to accommodate more traffic,” Freiwald said. “Parking garages, longer merge lanes and things that just accommodate these 900 people a day who are moving to Florida.”
Freiwald acknowledged there are no easy solutions. “The MPO has a laundry list a mile, two miles long of people who want to have bike lanes, people who are concerned about handicapped parking,” Freiwald said. “So [they can say to Longboat], ‘Come on guys. You on Longboat decided to live there. You gotta get there by bridge. We're sorry that the traffic's bad. There's no good solutions, but we've got solutions for these other 200 things we're working on.’”
One idea to decongest the Gulf Drive-Cortez Road intersection is replacing the traffic light with a roundabout. But this plan would likely benefit Anna Maria drivers more than Longboat drivers, Freiwald said. The Task Force has studied the intersection and observed that most traffic in both directions turns to go across the bridge. As of now, this means northbound traffic out of Longboat has a free right-turn lane that typically needs to yield only when southbound traffic out of Anna Maria has a green arrow.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a more expansive solution at the intersection is the location of nearby houses that would need to be bought to clear the right of way. Freiwald thinks Manatee County could use some of the taxes it collects from Longboaters living on the north side of the island to buy the necessary property to improve the intersection. One example of a more ambitious proposal there involves a flyover instead of a traditional surface intersection.
"Recall, that we've been advocating that something has to be done there,'' Daly said.
At the Longboat Key Kiwanis Club meeting at which Freiwald rolled out his presentation, members had their own ideas to share, including one who asked Freiwald why FDOT can’t build another bridge from the mainland to Longboat or Anna Maria. Freiwald pointed out that Longboat Key itself doesn’t have much of a traffic issue, but that the problems mostly stem from mainlanders visiting Coquina Beach and St. Armands, near the entry/exit points to the island. An additional bridge could cost $85 million or more, disturb seabeds and open the island further to sources of visiting traffic from a whole new mainland region, such as the University Parkway area.
To help drivers in the present, Longboatkey.org has a “current traffic maps” tab that includes a link to a Google Maps view of the area. People can then click the arrow next to “live traffic” at the bottom of the page to view historical data and predict what traffic will look like at a certain time of day or week.
Until change is implemented, the best Longboaters can do is plan around the traffic.
“It's not like there's a whole list of great ideas that are being ignored,” Freiwald said. “It's that there aren't any really great ideas. There's little stuff.”