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Longboat Key Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020 4 months ago

Traffic troubles this season have Longboat leaders looking for answers

Town wants to find new ways of mitigating effects of off-island construction projects north and south, present and future.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

First, it was a project to remove trees along Ringling Causeway, which prompted a series of lane closures and traffic backups in November and December.

Then it was a line of orange barrels, cutting off access to one of three left turn lanes at the intersection of Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 to accommodate traffic circle construction nearby at Fruitville Road. 

Last weekend, a half-marathon that prompted the shutdown of one side of the John Ringling Causeway sealed it. 

Traffic congestion,  Longboat Key leaders say, has become the single biggest topic of conversation this season and the biggest source of frustration for residents.

Residents Bob and Shannon Gault wrote to 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.

Commissioner Mike Haycock, who wrote an email of his own to Sarasota City Hall, raised the point on Monday at a Town Commission meeting, seeking ways for stakeholders such as Florida Department of Transportation and other neighboring governments to consider the broader implications and effects of long-running construction projects. He said the focus should be on forming a team that views Longboat a "key customer'' when making decisions that affect town residents' quality of life -- ensuring residents can consistently get on and off the island in 30 minutes. 

Leaders point to the temporary closure of a left turn lane at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue as a source for some of the traffic congestion.

"I've been here 23 years, drawbridges, fixed-span bridges, I remember years way back when I didn't talk about traffic with my neighbors,'' said Commissioner Mike Haycock. "It just was not a point of conversation. It just seems to have gotten worse and worse and worse." 

Haycock asked the town staff to devise a systematic way to track travel to build a database of in season and out of season times from a central point on Longboat Key to the mainland via northern and southern routes to spot trends and study the effects of road construction projects. 

Look familiar? Traffic frequently backs up over the Ringling Bridge in the afternoons.

"The one I think we really need to go hard at is the impact of construction on us, and heaven knows we have it coming up,'' he said, referring to future projects to build a roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue, which could start as early as late 2020, and further projects, unfunded for now, to build more roundabouts at Main Street and Ringling Boulevard.  

"Let's take everything coming up, let's view ourselves as a key customer,  let's get with whoever the action folks are and let's start asking for things we would expect them to look at,'' Haycock said.

Among those: 

  • Considering more nighttime work instead of working in the prime travel hours
  • Rethinking detours. "There was a way to not shut down that third lane. if someone had insisted on it,'' Haycock said.
  • More inclusion in planning and mitigation of projects that will affect traffic not just at the site, but also miles away.

"We've had numerous conversations with city staff about timing, not just time of day but also seasonal timing,'' Town Manager Tom Harmer said. "Australian pines, can't that be done offseason? I know that project is probably eight or 10 months long, so its probably going to impact some part of season, but it did catch us at the beginning. And my concern is that it's just going to get worse.''

Harmer said one of the challenges is a mix of responsibilities. FDOT, the city of Sarasota and private developers are responsible for several projects moving forward. He said events, such as the Sarasota Music Half-Marathon, are permitted without the city's input or knowledge. 

Haycock suggested joining forces with residents group on Lido Key and other barrier islands to make sure residents' needs are being considered when work is designed and mitigated. 

Islands residents living within the city limits have also complained about the traffic situation this year — and with more U.S. 41 roundabouts and the replacement of the Coon Key Bridge scheduled for construction in the next five years, there’s a concern seasonal congestion won’t be getting better anytime soon. St. Armands Circle merchants and property owners have worried traffic issues will negatively affect business in the commercial district.

Sarasota City Engineer Alex DavisShaw acknowledged road construction can be painful, particularly when there’s only one point of access. She said the city typically works to schedule its own projects for off-peak periods when possible, but the timing of projects on FDOT roads like U.S. 41 or the John Ringling Causeway are often influenced by state funding.

While work is proceeding on the Fruitville Road roundabout, traffic flow north on U.S. 41 from Gulfstream Avenue has been altered.

Asked whether some projects could be delayed to avoid construction fatigue, DavisShaw said traffic features such as the roundabouts are designed to function in concert with one another. Once that work is done, the city believes the road network along U.S. 41 will be noticeably improved, a long-term benefit worth any shorter-term complications.

Commissioner-elect BJ Bishop, who wrote to Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Town Manager Tom Barwin about traffic back ups on the causeway, said she's been frustrated for weeks and suggested another tack to raise the level of attention.

"I know each one of you have a large sphere of influence,'' she told commissioners, urging them to reach out to social and professional networks to join the conversation. 

"The only way to get a squeaky wheel to move . . . is you badger it to death until someone listens,'' she said. "Unfortunately, until we make it uncomfortable enough, and the public makes it uncomfortable enough, we're not going to see much action.''

(Sarasota Observer Deputy Managing Editor David Conway contributed to this report)


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