The debate over building a roundabout or a traffic light at the intersection of Lorraine Road and Players Drive is over.
Manatee County commissioners voted 7-0 on Nov. 14 to go back to the original plan for a traffic light.
In December 2022, after a light had been recommended by county staff members, then District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh made a request for a roundabout design to decide which would be a better fit for the intersection.
Residents were so concerned over this particular issue that 223 showed up to the public information meeting on Sept. 27, which the staff report called a “record attendance.”
Public Works Director Chad Butzow said no other issue within the Capital Improvement Plan has garnered that kid of interest at a public meeting.
The passion carried over to the Nov. 14 commission meeting. Those attending in the Patricia M. Glass Chambers were seeing red because over 50 supporters of a traffic signal were wearing red.
That group had backers from both Country Club and Country Club East and made its visual statement inside the chambers.
In the end, money was a key in determining the decision.
“When we look at the budget, and we are stewards of taxpayer’s money, there’s a $3 million swing, so we can talk about operating expenses and everything else, but $3 million, we can’t wash that out with operating expenses,” District 5 Commissioner Ray Turner said.
Butzow said the roundabout is currently included in the Capital Improvement Plan with a budget of $4.7 million. With roughly 50% of the plans complete, the traffic signal is in the $1.5 million range. That estimate is for construction only and doesn’t include the design, operational costs or sound mitigation.
Sound mitigation came into play after residents, who live along Lorraine Road and supported the roundabout, said the noise from traffic was ruining their quality of life and lowering their property values.
“We hear the loud noise in the morning, starting at 6 a.m., vibrating the windows of our homes,” Resident Judith Schilg told commissioners.
She quoted a study from the Environmental Protection Agency that said the mental health of residents living along busy roads is greatly affected by road noise and other issues. Schlig said she has to disconnect her home’s CO2 alarm when leaving the lanai doors open.
Turner suggested putting some of the savings into the construction of a sound barrier wall.
“I presented it to Rex (Jensen), and he said he can do it for significantly less,” Turner said. “The land acquisition isn’t even in this money (the $4.7 million to construct a roundabout), so there’s a lot of things that we can reappropriate in Lakewood Ranch and serve a greater cause.”
Less is not always more
Butzow said there wasn’t a significant accident history at that intersection, but safety was the biggest concern on both sides with traffic continuing to increase along Lorraine Road.
Residents with young children and golf carts argued that crossing a roundabout would be impossible. Neil Stringer told commissioners that he feared drivers wouldn’t yield to pedestrians.
“I predict there are going to be a lot of accidents, a lot of kids getting hit and more kids dying as a result,” Stringer said of the plans for a roundabout.
Charles Faber, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon for 46 years, had a similar prediction if commissioners chose a stoplight.
“I have witnessed devastating injuries caused by automobile accidents. Red light intersections are particularly horrible due to the high impact and speed involved versus the low impact crashes in roundabouts,” Faber said. “Imagine telling the parents of a 21-year-old college student that their daughter had just died at an intersection collision when she was only stopped at a light.”
Commissioners and staff agreed that roundabouts are technically safer; however, one sole roundabout does not have the same impact as a series of roundabouts. A roundabout at Players Drive would be an anomaly for Lorraine Road because in either direction, the intersections are signalized.
On State Road 70, for example, the county is installing seven roundabouts between Bourneside Boulevard and Waterbury Road (C.R. 675) next year in an effort to calm the dangerous thoroughfare.
The succession of one roundabout after another slows drivers down, which Butzow said has a lot to do with driver expectations because they recognize the area as a controlled roadway. Every project the county currently has planned that involves a roundabout includes two of more that are strategically placed and work in tandem.
A possible compromise
Additional factors played into the commissioners’ decision, as well. A traffic light takes six months of construction versus 18 months for a roundabout, and that particular intersection sees a heavy amount of non-motorized traffic.
“I drive down Lorraine almost every day. I go to church on Sunday, so I see the viewpoint of the street lights because I see people riding bikes, golf carts crossing, as well as pedestrians crossing,” At-large Commissioner Jason Bearden said. “Based on the current situation of the particular road, I’m more in favor of a traffic light.”
Proponents of the roundabout lost the vote, but did they lose the battle if a wall is included in the plans? Resident David Goldheim said it’s too soon to say because residents haven’t seen a design for a wall or adequate funding yet.
Schlig said residents have gone to the homeowners association twice already to request a wall. The estimates came back between $1.2 and $3 million, which would’ve been the financial responsibility of those residents living along Lorraine Road only.
Schlig said Turner told her after the meeting that he’s behind their efforts but can’t make any promises. She was one of the homeowners to receive an email from Jensen offering a wall, but she and Goldheim agreed that it’s not that simple. A study would need to be done to determine how high the wall should be and if it would be effective.
“Is it going to help or are they just throwing up a wall to make it look good and make us feel better?” Schlig said. “It doesn’t make up for not getting a roundabout.”
Designs for the light are only 50% complete. Strategic Planning Manager Ogden Clark replied in an email that “the wall is a design option component of the project and would be built into the cost.” More details will be available as the design reaches closer to 100% completion.
Clark said the wall will be a partnership with the Lakewood Ranch Stewardship District for construction, and the revised design schedule will be finished in early January.
“We’re extremely disappointed at the conclusion the commissioners voted on,” Goldheim said. “I’d like to believe that there’s a solution, but at the moment, there are so little concrete facts that I remain very skeptical to see if something effective can be designed and constructed.”
Lesley Dwyer is a staff writer for East County and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.