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Longboat Key Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022 4 months ago

Return of season prompts complaints of traffic congestion

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Construction will continue throughout much of 2022 at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
by: Mark Bergin Staff Writer

The holidays have come and gone, which means snowbird season is under way.

The return of season has prompted traffic gridlock at times, as crews continue roundabout construction at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.

In the week after Christmas, southbound Longboat Key traffic was backed up all the way to Bay Isles Parkway. Northbound traffic wasn’t much better with congestion starting at the 5200 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive by one account.

Roundabout construction at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue is set to complete by fall 2022.

“That’s within about two miles of completely being gridlocked,” said Longboat Limousine President Jimmy Seaton. “Our normal half hour to get to Sarasota airport from mid-Key was an hour, and sometimes more.”

Traffic flow has improved in recent weeks at the busy downtown Sarasota intersection, but Country Club Shores resident Bruce Goldsen said his neighbors told him about their traffic woes. And more changes to flow were expected this week as underground pipe work prompts a lane closure. 

“There were people who anecdotally were saying it was 45 minutes to an hour to get from my area to St. Armands,” Goldsen said. “But, like I say, that was like two or three days of hell, and then it seemed to right itself as New Year’s hit.”

There is concern among Longboaters that the bumper-to-bumper traffic could get worse as more people return for season. It’s no secret the number of people on the island triples from its full-time population of about 7,000 people.

“If you come from a place that had a lot of traffic before, you start to learn shortcuts, and what time is a good time to go, and how to maneuver,” Longboat Key resident Fred Lawson said.

Safety, particularly getting people to and from Sarasota Memorial Hospital, is also something to consider.  Longboat Key Fire Chief Paul Dezzi estimated 90% of the patients in Longboat Key choose to go to Sarasota Memorial Hospital instead of Blake Medical Center in Bradenton.

If a patient is unconscious, Dezzi said the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department transports the person to the nearest hospital.

Dezzi said firefighter-paramedics in his department have noticed an increase in traffic volume, especially near St. Armands Circle.

“If we have a major type of patient in the back of the rescue, we’re going to go lights and sirens to the hospital,” Dezzi said. “And, we haven’t had much issue with lights and sirens to the hospital, but with that in mind, we don’t transport every single patient (using) lights and sirens.”

Plus, first responders need to return to the island once dropping the patient off at SMH. Lights and siren isn't an option on the return trip. 

“The distance hasn’t changed, but the traffic has changed, so coming back is going to be an issue for us as well,” Dezzi said. “We don’t run lights and sirens back to the firehouse.”

First responders at Sarasota County Fire Station No. 3 at 47 North Adams Drive back up the Longboat Key Fire Rescue Department when either department has to take a patient to the hospital, according to Dezzi.

Traffic configurations to change again

The Florida Department of Transportation is in the Phase 1A configuration of its $8.6 million project on U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. The state’s plan is to finish by fall 2022.

“Folks who haven’t been here for a while can’t seem to understand why they’re doing it this time of year, and I said, ‘Well, it’s going to overlap next year too,’” Seaton said. “So it takes time. What’s the saying? You break some eggs to make an omelet.”

From February until March, FDOT is planning to move to its Phase 1B configuration, which means reopening the temporary pedestrian path along the northern part of Gulfstream Avenue and the west side of U.S. 41. While traveling east along Gulfstream Avenue, motorists will also be able to continue east in the far right lane along Gulfstream heading toward downtown Sarasota. The lane to continue on Gulfstream Avenue is currently blocked.

Phase 2A is scheduled from April to May. Pedestrian access will be restricted along the east side of U.S. 41.

Phase 2B — when the roundabout itself will first open — is set for June to August.

If the previous traffic pattern changes are any indication, delays are likely when the configurations are altered again.

FDOT is expected to be in Phase IB of the roundabout project from February to March. Map courtesy of FDOT.

Longboaters have expressed their concerns about their perceived lack of police presence to enforce the current traffic configurations, the far west lane of U.S. 41 closed just south of Fruitville Road and the addition of HAWK pedestrian crossings at U.S. 41 and Fruitville.

“The fact that every person who pushes a button can create a red light on a U.S. route that has that many… tens of thousands of cars a day, you push a button and the traffic stops in both directions, to me, is ludicrous because there’s no rhyme or reason,” Seaton said. “It’s like a drawbridge that would open every two minutes for a boat to go by.”

Longboat Key resident Judy Lasman said she would like to see an increased police presence near Gulfstream Avenue and Golden Gate Point. It's there that traffic flow takes an unusual temporary shift in which vehicles for several hundred yards drive on the left lanes of the road. 

“Many people in our building have witnessed near-accidents or accidents,” Lasman said. “So, what we notice is that there’s no police presence there. So, the sign says no left turn, but that doesn’t matter because nobody’s watching.”

Longboat residents also expressed their desire for overhead pedestrian crossing. The elevated walkway never came to fruition and is something Longboat Key leaders advocated for, for years.

Seaton’s company transports clients to and from downtown Sarasota on a daily basis. He said he initially was a “naysayer,” but believes the roundabouts along U.S. 41 at Fruitville Road, 10th Street and 14th Street are working quicker than the intersections used to operate.

“We haven’t had a full season yet, of course, but anecdotally…I probably put as many miles through those circles as any individual and they’re working ok,” Seaton said.

Lawson was more skeptical. 

“I think that my issue has become, I would have waited for people (to have) gotten more used to the other roundabouts because I think the roundabouts aren’t working as well as they expected, mostly because…it’s like people don’t realize the rules,” Lawson said.

Both men said they understood the importance of remaining patient, especially as many drivers are experiencing the roundabouts for the first time since returning for the season.

“You’re sitting at a roundabout, you want to yell out at the person, ‘OK, you can go! You don’t have to yield!’” Lawson said. “So, I think that my answer is, it’s short-lived.”

“People have a little learning curve and you’ve got to be a little patient,” Seaton said.

An aerial view on Jan. 7 shows the roundabout configuration at U.S. 41 and Fruitville Road.

 

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Mark Bergin is the Longboat Key Town Hall reporter for the Observer. He has previously worked as a senior digital producer at WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg. Mark is a graduate of the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicagoland area.

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