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Sarasota Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015 6 years ago

Traffic Study

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As traffic issues continue to frustrate city residents who live and work off of the mainland, leaders on St. Armands Circle are working with city and state officials on solutions.

As St. Armands property owners, residents and merchants waited to meet with representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation Wednesday morning, they speculated on the cause of the officials’ tardiness. Most likely, those in attendance agreed, they were stuck in traffic.

The reason the St. Armands Business Improvement District was meeting with FDOT was to discuss those same traffic issues. Attendees at the meeting painted a grim picture of the situation: During rush hour, traffic backs up all the way around St. Armands Circle, taking 40 minutes to an hour to get to the mainland or Longboat Key. The traffic is an issue on Longboat, too; during peak hours, cars are lined up from the Circle to the Publix on Bay Isles Parkway.

“It's just bumper-to-bumper,” BID board member Michael Valentino said. “We've got clients coming from all over the world to shop on St. Armands Circle and they can't get home, and they get frustrated.”

Traffic congestion has long been a problem in Sarasota during the height of season, but at least two things make the current situation different, according to stakeholders on St. Armands. First, traffic is worse than it has ever been, they say — and with new projects slated for construction near the John Ringling Causeway, the overcrowding appears poised to become an even more significant issue going forward. 

The second factor, however, is they believe there may be some simple fixes to help mitigate the issues. Those on St. Armands think that, by coordinating a series of lights between the mainland and the Circle more effectively — at Fruitville Road, Gulfstream Avenue, Sunset Drive and Bird Key Drive — the flow of traffic could be improved. The same goes for Longboat Key, where traffic signals at the Longboat Key Club and Ken Thompson Parkway are more harmonious, they say.

“What happens is you get stopped at one, and then you get stopped again,” said Hugh Fiore, president of the St. Armands Residents Association.

Easing the Pain

According to city engineer Alex DavisShaw, staff is working with FDOT to better coordinate its traffic signals — particularly at packed intersections, such as Fruitville Road and Gulfstream Avenue along U.S. 41. The city is part of a regional advanced traffic management system, designed to help facilitate that coordination.

Right now, DavisShaw said, FDOT is studying queue lengths and travel times at those intersections to get a sense of how severe the issues are. That work is likely to continue through March, and won’t provide much in the way of immediate relief.

“They want to see how things are operating during season,” DavisShaw said.

L.K. Nandam, FDOT’s District 1 traffic operations engineer, was surprised to hear how bad things had gotten. He agreed to take a look at whether the timing of the traffic signals were exacerbating the issue, and said he would report back to St. Armands stakeholders in a couple of weeks with his findings. If the problem could be addressed with existing infrastructure, he said, implementing a solution should be relatively straightforward — and quick.

Nandam, DavisShaw and St. Armands representatives all agreed that traffic issues wouldn’t be fixed by better coordinating the lights, even if that was making things worse. A series of roundabouts planned for U.S. 41 should help matters, Nandam said, but those are still years away. Asked what she thought would help mitigate the issue, DavisShaw’s answer spoke to how severe the structural congestion issues were.

“My real opinion?” DavisShaw said. “The solution to the problem is another bridge.”

Nandam agreed that many of the roads in the area are simply being pushed beyond their intended capacities.

“In relation to demand, there's heavier demand than what the network can handle,” Nandam said.

That answer was hard to hear for people on St. Armands, who were eager to get a more immediate solution in place to at least make things better. Residents suggested that, during rush hour, police officers could direct traffic at busy intersections to help facilitate more steady streams of traffic.

Nandam said that, while that is often an effective solution for smaller streets, it becomes an issue at bigger intersections like the ones at Fruitville and Gulfstream. With so much competing movement — traffic going across U.S. 41 and traffic turning onto Fruitville and Gulfstream — it’s hard for officers to judge what would be the most effective way to facilitate the flow of cars.

“It gets really tough for a cop to control those intersections, even two cops,” Nandam said. “It's something that we get feedback on from our partners.”

The group discussed other possible mitigation techniques, including crossing guards on the Circle to help control pedestrian traffic. An underlying issue throughout Wednesday’s discussion was that of funding — even if they wanted to implement some of the proposed solutions, it seemed unlikely that money would be available to do so.

“We know we have a problem,” said Diana Corrigan, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association. ‘We have a couple of ways to try to solve the problem, but no matter what we look at, we say we have no money.”

Ultimately, Nandam said, the best solutions to the congestion issues would be those that reduced the number of vehicles on the roadway.

“The city and community has to look at some kind of service that would reduce the amount of traffic that's going out there,” Nandam said.

Traffic Talk

Options to help alleviate traffic discussed during the meeting:
• Build a second bridge from mainland Sarasota to St. Armands
• Better coordination of traffic lights
• Have police officers direct traffic at busy intersections during peak travel times
• Add crossing guards on the Circle to help control pedestrian traffic

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