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Winter season traffic ramps up with some help

The town is preparing for traffic troubles on both ends of the island this winter season.

  • By
  • | 5:00 a.m. January 18, 2023
Traffic circulates around the new roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue on its first day of operation.
Traffic circulates around the new roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue on its first day of operation.
Photo by Harry Sayer
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Anyone visiting Longboat Key is no stranger to traffic, especially this time of year. As snowbirds fly south for the winter and vacationers seek refuge from the frigid North, digital road maps turn red, along with the faces of those who can't move. 

That's basic math: more cars, same number of roads. 

This year, however, a few new suspects have made their way into town to make the usual headache worse at times. 

Roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue

The roundabout, which motorists may have expected to ease traffic congestion, has caused its fair share of road rage only a few weeks after celebrating its official opening. 

Angry drivers flocked to social media and into government official inboxes to let others know of their troubles with the circle, specifically Jan. 10 after an eastbound lane was closed mid-day for crews to install concrete islands and curbing. 

Longboat Key town commissioners expressed their concern and distaste with the Florida Department of Transportation’s decision when timing lane closures in emails with representatives from the department. 

“I continue to receive calls and texts about the wretched situation created by FDOT taking eastbound traffic to one lane Tuesday,” Commissioner BJ Bishop wrote in an email. “Many expressed concern with the cavalier stance taken by FDOT stating a small cement pour justified citizens missing chemo appointments, missing planes and being paralyzed in traffic for hours. I took an oath to ensure the health, welfare and safety of our citizens. I am sure your superiors did the same. That mission failed miserably this week. It cannot happen again.”

Commissioner Mike Haycock also wrote to the town’s FDOT representative. 

“We all know the challenges the winter season brings to traffic and were happy to hear two years ago that the Gulfstream Roundabout would be complete before this year's winter residents arrive,” he wrote. “I understand that did not happen due to (COVID-19), supply chain issues and weather disruptions.What I don’t understand is why the FDOT project managers would shut down any lanes during rush hour. They had to know that they would create traffic backlogs that would take several hours to clear. I live in the middle of LBK on Gulf of Mexico Drive and there were 5-6 mile traffic jams going both north and south.”

The entire roundabout complex was anticipated to open late last year. Monthly updates with the contractor, CDM Smith, consistently projected completion sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but the state’s response to Hurricane Ian upended some of those plans as materials, equipment and manpower were diverted south to address emergency infrastructure repairs. 

That delay caused the contractor to focus on opening the traffic circle by itself by the end of the year, which it did, leaving the finishing touches extending into this spring. 

“The Florida Department of Transportation understands the impact motorists experience when disruptions on roadways occur,” reads a statement from FDOT following the backup. “Project teams must balance completing necessary work at the same time as maintaining traffic flow. In addition, certain tasks on our projects have different requirements, from when work should occur to how many lanes are needed to be closed to perform the work.”

St. Armands winter festival

Much of the town raised concerns as the St. Armands festival was nearing reality out of fear that crowds and traffic would only be worsened significantly as it began ramping up for the season. 

Ahead of the event, in hopes of playing a role in halting it, Mayor Ken Schneier wrote a letter on behalf of the town and its residents to then City of Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo and the Florida Department of Transportation. 

Backups heading south into St. Armands Circle are common, but few complaints were registered this holiday season.
File photo

“While the occasional two-day programs managed by the Merchants’ Association with FDOT oversight have on balance benefited the local communities, the length and intensity of the proposed festival, promoted and organized as it has been outside of normal procedures and guidelines, could create havoc for those attempting to travel between Sarasota and the barrier islands during such a busy time,” he wrote. 

However, Schneier said he did not receive any calls or emails from residents about traffic concerns relating to the event. 

“I heard virtually no complaints at all about the fest,” he said. “There were some traffic issues getting downtown, but I am not sure any of them centered on getting around St. Armands.”

Bradenton Beach proposal

Although steps still remain between idea and reality, commissioners still fear the possibility of a hotel being built at the roundabout on Bridge Street at Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach. 

Drawings submitted to the city of Bradenton Beach by Luttrell Architectural LLC of Tampa show a 103-room hotel measuring over 206,000 square feet.

Town officials have been concerned for years about the effects of traffic congestion through Bradenton Beach, north of Longboat Key.
File photo

The plans include three floors for guest rooms, a retail space, offices, a gym, a coffee bar and miniature golf. 

Plans for the rooftop feature a swimming pool and outdoor deck. 

“I would hope the town’s approach to St. Armands would be the same on the north end,” Vice Mayor Maureen Merrigan said at the Jan. 9 commission meeting. 

Schneier said that part of the decision to back St. Armands was after request and feedback from resident groups and the merchant’s association. He has yet to receive the same sort of urging from anyone on the north end. As the idea is in its earliest stages, he also said it was difficult to comment on the matter when little was known. 

“We’re going to watch it closely,” he said. “I plan to watch it pretty carefully.” 

Sarasota Observer reporter Andrew Warfield contributed reporting to this story.


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