The traffic problem plaguing the barrier islands during season has many contributors, but one of the most noticeable has drawn ire recently, and not for the first time: bridge openings.
Rebuffed by the U.S. Coast Guard in a previous attempt to change its bridge-opening schedules, the town of Longboat Key has found a new champion.
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, said he would intervene with the Coast Guard to help change the bridge-opening schedule.
“The safe and timely flow of traffic on the island is vital to the local economy and quality of life,” Buchanan said in an email.
“If there is a consensus at the local level, I would be happy to work with the town of Longboat Key and the U.S. Coast Guard on a possible solution to reduce bridge openings during rush hour.”
The Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce has made the bridge-opening issue one of its top priorities. Chamber President Gail Loefgren said there is consensus among her membership calling for changes to the bridge openings.
Loefgren said the chamber believes limiting bridge openings across the area to one per hour during peak traffic periods is one of several ways to reduce traffic on the Key.
However, the Coast Guard, which controls the bridge-opening schedule for boats, refused a previous request to stop opening Longboat Pass Bridge during peak traffic times. In a May memo to the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Coast Guard denied its request, citing safety reasons.
The Coast Guard said the tides and currents that surround the Longboat Pass Bridge in particular eliminate the safe vessel holding areas for boats waiting for the bridge to open.
Dennis Matthews, director of marina operations for Longboat Key Club Moorings, said from boaters’ perspective, the bridge-opening policy has been adequate and he’s not in favor of restricting boat operations.
His marina is home to 291 deepwater slips capable of accommodating vessels of up to 150 feet, many of which require bridges to open to get to the Gulf of Mexico.
He also has safety concerns.
“One concern for restricted bridge openings would be Longboat Pass, for example,”Matthews said. “It is on demand for vessel traffic due to a very strong tidal influence in the pass and with very limited maneuverability it would be easy for a vessel to wind up in a dangerous situation.”
Aside from boat access, bridge maintenance can also affect how often bridges open during peak hours.
Although the Coast Guard sets the rules for bridge openings, the Florida Department of Transportation owns the bridges and is in charge of their opening and their maintenance.
Maintenance openings have been a problem in the past, said Tom Freiwald, chairman of the Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force, which released a petition Friday to address traffic concerns. Click here to download and sign the petition.
“When we examined bridge logs, for example last March in one day, the New Pass Bridge opened seven times for maintenance,” Freiwald said.
In 2015, from January through May, FDOT’s logs for Longboat Pass Bridge show that of the 974 times the gates went down, 73 of them were for maintenance or training. Of those, 38 were during peak hours. Peak hours are defined as 8 to 10 a.m., noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.
In 2015, FDOT agreed to limit the number of non-vessel related openings during these hours.
“I have recently reminded the FDOT of its agreement to reduce non-vessel, non-emergent related openings,” said retired USCG Adm. Steve Branham, a Longboat resident. “They have been doing that.”
The question of how often is too often for a bridge to open, however, hasn’t gone away.
Jeff Mayers, general manager of the Resort at Longboat Key Club, said traffic always stacks up when the New Pass Bridge goes up during rush hour.
“New Pass Bridge goes up at certain times during heavy traffic,” Mayers said.
In 2015, the Coast Guard estimated an average of 20,000 cars total traverse Longboat Key bridges every day.
At the peak of traffic during the day, an average of 13 cars per minute cross the New Pass span while the Longboat Pass Bridge carries an average of seven cars per minute, according to a study conducted by Branham and Lenny Landau of Longboat Key.
While the process to change bridge-opening schedules could take up to a year, Longboat Key Town Commissioner Jack Daly said the task force’s petition list specific short-term actions that could impact this season’s traffic.
“My suggestion is for the petition to get that ball rolling by focusing on and effectuating the short-term actions, while paving the road by providing and building the coalition structure to achieve the long-term remedies to be recommended by the study,” Daly said.
Former Longboat Vice Mayor Dave Brenner said nothing will change unless Longboat coalesces behind Buchanan in pushing for change.
“A political coalition solution is the only meaningful way to get results,” Brenner said.