At 9:35 p.m. on Monday, Longboat Key resident and commissioner-elect B.J. Bishop sent Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch a plea for help.
Webb called the traffic on the Presidents Day holiday the worst traffic this season on the roads from mainland Sarasota to the barrier islands. She said traffic from U.S. 41 to St. Armands Circle was heavily congested from the late afternoon until 8 p.m., and that she personally spent more than an hour waiting to get through the Circle.
“No crossing guards, no third left turn lane and no sense of urgency from city staff has completely frustrated our entire community,” Bishop wrote. “Help!!”
Bishop is far from the first barrier islands resident to complain about traffic as the city and Florida Department of Transportation work to build roundabouts on U.S. 41 at Fruitville Road, Tenth Street and 14th Street. Still, her email resonated with Ahearn-Koch. At midnight, the mayor responded that she, too, had dealt with traffic issues Monday as her family drove from Sarasota to Lido Beach. Ahearn-Koch said she had never experienced such heavy traffic in 49 years in Sarasota, and she wanted to discuss a way to fix the issue.
She called for better coordination between the city, state and the barrier islands, but she also reiterated her belief the city should reconsider its long-term plans for redesigning the U.S. 41 corridor. Specifically, she suggested waiting on the construction of a planned roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue, a project city leaders have repeatedly committed to in the past.
“I think we can do much better, or at least have an updated discussion,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Any changes to the plan for a roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream would have to be taken up by the City Commission and coordinated with FDOT, which oversees the state highway. City staff has, however, responded to the concern Ahearn-Koch and barrier islands residents have expressed about the project. On Feb. 12, Assistant City Engineer Daniel Ohrenstein sent a memo to city staff touting the projected benefits of the roundabout, a document Chief Transportation Planner Colleen McGue later revised and updated.
The memo states a 2019 study determined the roundabout would reduce February peak hour intersection delay by 29% and March delays by 41%. It also notes the safety benefits of roundabouts as compared to signalized intersections, particularly for pedestrians.
Through the memo, city planning and engineering staff argued the roundabout will ultimately be productive for addressing seasonal traffic frustrations.
“In short, the Gulfstream roundabout has been affirmed by the public and the City Commission for two decades as the way to fix traffic at the intersection and connect downtown to the bayfront,” the memo states. “As staff receive daily indications of the discontent of motorists waiting along John Ringling Causeway, this project is a timely and fortunate solution.”
Those arguments have failed to convince Ahearn-Koch. Although the memo states the project is “the culmination of the work of a whole generation of professionals,” the mayor believes officials could identify a more effective long-term plan for the intersection if stakeholders met to discuss the options available to them.
“The ideas and designs should be for 50 years and for 80-100% congestion relief,” Ahearn-Koch said.
Barrier islands residents and businesses had hoped they might see some congestion relief after a left-turn lane from Gulfstream onto northbound U.S. 41 was scheduled to reopen this month, but the city announced Feb. 14 that change has been delayed until March. In an emailed statement, City Manager Tom Barwin said the city wants to do what it can to maintain clear lines of communication to their residents and neighbors on the islands.
“We are continually looking to improve our collaboration with the town of Longboat Key with information on projects or incidents which could impact movements to or from the barrier islands,” Barwin said. “We’ve reached out to FDOT regarding communication and enhancing our unified approach to managing traffic, especially during the season and during construction projects.”