City Manager Tom Barwin takes a deep breath when asked what can be done to improve traffic gridlock in Sarasota and all along the nearby barrier islands, including Longboat Key.
Then the answers come rushing out.
Calibrated traffic signals, roundabouts, $6.2 million in improvements along U.S. 41 near the Ringling Bridge pinch point south of Fruitville, alternative transit and parking garages are just a few of the 150 improvements the city lists on its multimodal plan for 2016 alone, he said.
“Contrary to what some people think, people aren’t sitting on their hands,” Barwin said. “It’s not like a remote control on the TV, obviously.”
Barwin said Florida traffic is unique with an emphasis on problems faced during peak season and daily rush hours.
“Ninety percent of the time, the traffic is fine,” he said.
Florida’s population growth and an inability to expand transportation routes along built-out island roadways means new approaches are necessary, he said.
“I am predicting by the next census in 2020, our metro area in Manatee and Sarasota counties will be home to 800,000 people full time,” Barwin said. “We’re growing up to be a major metro region. When you combine 800,000 full-time residents with 3 million to 4 million visitors per year, we need to start planning transit options. It’s time to face that reality.”
Sarasota plans to develop multi-use connections between downtown and bayfront and cultural attractions, which will be open to bicycles.
“Those are all conceived to get more vehicles off the streets,” Barwin said.
With six new hotels under development, Barwin said he hopes an electric shuttle system can begin using an Uber-style app next year.
“We’re looking at shuttles to move the people and keep the people off the streets,” Barwin said.
The Florida Department of Transportation is the key to addressing any traffic issues, said Longboat Key Town Manager David Bullock.
“I’m a realist,” Bullock said. “FDOT will not do anything until they study it. They own the roads.”
Bradenton Beach Mayor Bill Shearon said he and the other three island mayors – Longboat Key Mayor Jack Duncan, Homes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson and Anna Maria Island Mayor Dan Murphy - have been working through Bullock with the Florida Department of Transportation to come up with ways to ease traffic this season.
Longboat Key Police Department Chief Pete Cumming said he’s been asked “that” question about 300 times on how to quickly improve traffic conditions. There is no immediate answer, he said.
“My answer has always been: LBK does not have a traffic problem,” Cumming said. “We are a free-flowing island that hits about a dozen pinch points. The answer is a regional approach (to improving the transportation network).”
A few severe pinch points stand out on a daily basis, according to Bullock:
• Seasonal traffic backs up from St. Armands to downtown Sarasota in the afternoons and the opposite in the mornings.
• Longboat Key drivers endure backups on the southern end from around noon on Gulf of Mexico Drive three miles back to Publix until after 6 p.m.
• 119th and Cortez Road.
• Cortez and Gulf Boulevard.
• Gulf Stream and U.S. 41.
FDOT is just beginning to work on a $675,000 traffic study aimed at finding solutions but it won’t be available for at least two years. FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen said the latest traffic study will be done during the 2018 tourism season.
“There is no timeline right now on completion,” he said.
Sarasota County is redirecting $65,000 for a study to improve a nearly 1-mile left-center lane improvement along a portion of Gulf of Mexico Drive near Country Club Shores. The money comes from road impact fees collected in the Longboat Key Facility Service District
The seasonal traffic crisis has answers, said Bob Gault of Longboat Key. He spent 15 years with Universal heading parks in Orlando, Hollywood and Osaka, Japan, and 29 years at Sea World heading parks in Orlando, San Diego, Ohio and Texas.
“So, I know a little about traffic,” Gault said.
“The core issue is that Longboat is at the end of the traffic queue for access to and from Sarasota,” he said. “The intersections at Gulf Stream, Fruitville and U.S. 41 were extremely deficient in handling the in-season traffic growth currently even before the new high density adjacent construction began and other large projects are being considered in those locations.”
A potential improvement: Bullock said the town is talking with FDOT about installing $1 million roundabouts at Broadway and Longboat Club Road on Gulf of Mexico Drive. But it’s not happening any time soon.
“Nothing has been decided on the roundabouts,” Stublen said via email.
While FDOT studies possible solutions to seasonal gridlock, drivers stew in it. Drivers on barrier islands ranging from Anna Maria Island all the way south to Siesta Key can count on idling away hours in long lines to get just about anywhere during season with no relief in sight.
Shearon said he has the answer to easing the gridlock.
“We’ve got a new plan we’re putting in,” Shearon said. “We’re making Longboat Pass Bridge one way from Bradenton Beach to Longboat Key and the Cortez Bridge is only going to be for residents.”
Shearon chuckled, then spelled out the hard truth.
“The main thing is we’ve just got too much metal and not enough asphalt on the roads,” he said.