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Longboat Key Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 1 year ago

Sarasota mayor responds to barrier-island traffic concerns

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Turn lane could reopen weeks earlier, Ahearn-Koch writes in an email that also suggests a re-examination of roundabout plan at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

An often-identified traffic bottleneck could take a turn for the better around Valentine’s Day, Sarasota’s mayor said.

In an email to barrier island residents, leaders and other stakeholders, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said this week that barrels blocking the third of three left turn lanes at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue are expected to be removed around Feb. 15, two or three weeks earlier than originally thought.

“This is really good news,’’ she wrote.

The third turn lane has been widely hailed as one component of smoother flowing traffic between the barrier islands and the mainland since it was approved by Sarasota city leaders in 2017.

Since late November, though, when the turn lane closed as part of a package of traffic-flow changes related to the $7.47 million roundabout project at Fruitville Road, traffic has routinely backed up on the eastbound leg of the Ringling Causeway, especially during the afternoon rush.

Barrier island residents’ complained last weekend when a city-approved half-marathon over the bridge to St. Armands contributed to a standstill situation heading east to the mainland. Among them, Longboat Key residents Bob and Shannon Gault who sent the town an email about their experience driving to the mainland for church on Sunday. After sitting near-motionless for 30 minutes, they gave up and drove home.

“There is clear evidence of a total disregard for access to and from Sarasota barrier islands, which is destroying and will further destroy property values,” the Gaults wrote.

The prospect of seasonal backups this year and further construction at the intersection, including a large roundabout at Gulfstream and U.S. 41 expected to launch in late 2020, prompted a flurry of emails and phone calls to Sarasota City Hall, complaining about the possibility of near-continuous tough traffic conditions.

Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, said leaders in her commercial district have attempted to work with the city and the Florida Department of Transportation to share their concerns. But Corrigan’s isn’t only focused on what’s happening this year.  At the request of St. Armands stakeholders, the city agreed to place utilities underground on John Ringling Causeway leading into Longboat Key. And within the next five years, the state intends to rebuild the Coon Key Bridge.

Traffic backs frequently over the Ringling Bridge's eastbound span to Bird Key, and St. Armands Circle.

Corrigan said island residents are already construction-weary, and she thinks things could get worse if there isn’t a reprieve. She wants the city and state to delay the construction of the Gulfstream roundabout for a year or two. She knows there’s no way to avoid the issues that come with construction, and she acknowledges the need for the city to improve its infrastructure, but she believes a balance can be achieved.

“I know that these projects aren’t going to go away,” Corrigan said. “We just need a break, especially getting on and off the island. I think the people on Longboat and Lido and Bird Key feel exactly the same way: Just give us some breathing room for about a year.”

Ahearn-Koch in her email acknowledged the benefit of the third lane.

“In fact, when that lane was created, many people commented about what a good solution that was to that intersection and questioned the need to spend $20 million on a roundabout at Gulfstream when there might be an easier and more effective solution. I would appreciate having that conversation with FDOT and revisiting the idea of the proposed roundabout at that key intersection. ‘’

Longboat leaders, too, have questioned the effectiveness of the roundabout project, commissioning an independent traffic analysis in 2018 that concluded the current intersection’s performance would be on par with the roundabout’s, but without the months of construction and expense.

Arthuro Perez, CDM Smith’s senior project manager, told commissioners about a year ago the proposed roundabout would be no better than the three-turn lane “no-build” alternative. The Florida Department of Transportation, however, has said its traffic projections by 2040 show the roundabout will improve the flow of traffic by 72% over the existing junction during peak morning traffic and 14% more during afternoon traffic.

“The bigger issue, down the immediate road, is to re-examine the proposal at Gulfstream,’’ Ahearn-Koch wrote. "Once the third express lane is open again, we can measure the improvements and perhaps re-think the project there. This is not a new suggestion from my end, and  I would be more than happy to have a productive conversation with the FDOT team, city staff, city residents, and island residents to really explore the possibilities and ideas of a solution that relieves the congestion - on a long term basis - at this critical intersection of our city. "

(Sarasota Observer Deputy Managing Editor David Conway contributed reporting to the story.)

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