Longboat Key residents are hopeful changes along U.S. 41 will reduce seasonal congestion, but a new crosswalk may complicate matters.
On U.S. 41, in the middle of one of the most scrutinized stretches of roadway in the area, a long, metal arm has been erected over the street — a signal of imminent change.
The Florida Department of Transportation is in the process of constructing a pedestrian crosswalk across connecting First Street to Ritz-Carlton Boulevard in Sarasota. It’s part of an ongoing series of traffic modifications between Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue, a crucial corridor for those traveling to and from Longboat Key and other barrier islands.
In March, FDOT added an extra left-turn lane onto westbound Gulfstream Avenue at U.S. 41. Barrier island residents asked the city of Sarasota to sign off on that change last August, hoping to move more cars through a congested intersection during season.
City Manager Tom Barwin expressed some skepticism about the proposal, but the City Commission agreed with the citizens, voting unanimously to implement the change. The extra turn lane has been in place for just over a month, but anecdotally, island residents believe it’s helping.
“It seems like a number of my constituents here on Longboat have indicated that generally, these traffic flows from Longboat Key over to Sarasota this year at peak times seemed a bit lighter,” Longboat Town Commissioner Jack Daly said.
Daly pointed out that there’s no concrete data on the significance of that perception. Still, he’s one of those residents who thinks the extra turn lane has helped. He’s hopeful the addition of a northbound right-turn slip lane along Fruitville Road on U.S. 41 will lead to more significant travel time improvements.
The new pedestrian crosswalk at First Street may complicate the equation. Those interested in reducing congestion along U.S. 41 have asked whether a pedestrian-activated signal will work against that goal. When the city approved the changes in August, FDOT presented models indicating the crosswalk would create a longer average delay, even after the addition of the third left-turn lane on Gulfstream.
The city of Sarasota has prioritized pedestrian-oriented improvements on U.S. 41. Barwin has said the opening of the Vue Sarasota Bay condominium and Westin Sarasota hotel has increased the foot traffic heading to and from the bayfront near Gulfstream. He’s cautioned against solely prioritizing traffic volume in the decision-making process regarding the design of the state-controlled highway.
“We continue to urge FDOT to make U.S. 41 through downtown safer for pedestrians while trying to accommodate traffic,” Barwin said in a March email.
Even with the uncertainty regarding the effects of the First Street crosswalk, Daly is optimistic the new traffic configuration could be a long-term solution on U.S. 41. FDOT and the city have said the changes are meant to be temporary. Daily, however, wants the state to study how the roadway functions in 2019 before making any decision on what to do next.
“We’d be best advised to get that experience next peak season here before finally committing to what FDOT is continuing to support and propose — namely, a roundabout at the Gulfstream-U.S. 41 intersection,” Daly said.
FDOT is currently evaluating the prospect of adding a roundabout to that intersection. In March, the agency held a public information meeting regarding the concept. Both state and city officials have said a roundabout could provide the optimal balance of improving traffic flow and pedestrian safety. Daly is skeptical about that claim.
He worried that adding more pedestrian-activated crosswalks within the roundabouts could exacerbate traffic delays. He acknowledged the city’s desire to effectively move pedestrians and suggested a pedestrian overpass could allow people to move across U.S. 41 without affecting drivers. City staff has said pedestrian overpasses are expensive and generally ineffective.
As city and island leaders look to the future of U.S. 41, the competing interests of the two groups will play a key role in conversations about any additional changes to the road.
“The city’s focus, understandably, is on pedestrian mobility,” Daly said. “Longboat Key, and I think Lido Key and the other barrier islands, are focused on automobile traffic.”
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