Traffic woes plague Island drivers

Anna Maria Island traffic
Traffic piles up at the intersection of Marina and Gulf Drives on March 14. To encourage free-flow traffic, City Engineer Lynn Burnett hopes to put in a roundabout at the intersection. - Kristin Swain | Sun

ANNA MARIA ISLAND – Everyone who’s driven on the Island during winter season months knows that a little extra time and a lot of patience are needed to deal with traffic delays.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s Barrier Island Traffic Study recorded hourly numbers of motorists on Manatee Avenue as high as 40 percent over regular traffic volumes during peak season times, January through April 2017, with the traffic on Cortez Road noted as 15 percent over average volumes. That comes out to about 1,500-1,600 cars per hour on Manatee Avenue and 1,200-1,400 on Cortez Road.

Once they’re on the Island, there are only so many places for all those cars to go. During the same time, FDOT contractors recorded an average of 1,000 cars an hour on Marina Drive with the same number also driving down Gulf Drive to Bradenton Beach.

“It’s like taking 30 pounds of potatoes and trying to put it in a 5-pound sack,” said Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer, who also serves as the city’s traffic engineer. “There’s no where to send the traffic. People are driving out to a dead end.”

Part of the issue is that for everyone coming onto the Island, they need somewhere to go, and everyone already on the Island is trying to get somewhere. Rather than merging, the two traffic streams are clashing as parking becomes more limited and streets fill with vehicles.

Holmes Beach Mayor Bob Johnson referred to Queue Theory, a mathematical study of waiting lines, to explain it. He likened it to waiting in line to check in at the airport. He said waiting lines move faster because airlines open up more counters to serve guests. According to the theory, lines can only move as quickly as the person in front is being served.

If the person at the front of the line is a driver who’s stuck at a red light or can’t find a parking space, the line builds up and the wait time for other drivers increases. The issue, Johnson said, is there’s only so many gateways to the Island, three including access from Longboat Key, and potentially 1,000 people trying to use each one at the same time.

Anna Maria bridge
Every time the Anna Maria Island Bridge raises to allow a boat to pass it can take up to 15 minutes for traffic patterns to return to normal. – Kristin Swain| Sun

One long-term fix to help traffic coming from the mainland is the installation of high fixed-span bridges in place of the Anna Maria Island and Cortez bridges. Eliminating the 5-minute raising and lowering of the current drawbridges could save motorists up to 15 minutes of wait time.

In Holmes Beach, Tokajer also is working to optimize the timing of the red lights at East Bay Drive and Manatee Avenue and Gulf Drive and Manatee Avenue to allow traffic to flow better once the bridge reopens.

Another short-term solution being considered in Holmes Beach is to extend the right turn lane for East Bay Drive to the merge lane from the Manatee Public Beach and extend the right turn lane on Manatee Avenue for Gulf Drive to allow motorists more freedom of movement.

One of the fixes proposed by the traffic study engineers at Stantec is to have a park and ride service from the mainland down Manatee Avenue to the county beach. Without a dedicated traffic lane, Tokajer doesn’t think that idea will be popular with beachgoers.

island traffic elongated roundabout
An elongated roundabout is proposed as a long-term solution for the busy intersection of Marina, Palm and Key Royale Drives near Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. – Submitted | Sun

“They’re still stuck in the same traffic but without the comfort of their own car,” he said, also expressing concern about what happens to all those people if a rainstorm blows up. “How will you get them off the Island?” he said.

Lynn Burnett, engineer to the three Island cities, thinks she may have some long-term solutions to help traffic, if not eliminate it, ideas the people behind the traffic study are getting behind.

One idea is to remove traffic lights and install roundabouts slightly larger than the one at Bridge Street and Gulf Drive in Bradenton Beach. Burnett said the roundabouts will encourage free flow of traffic, if motorists obey the rules of the road. FDOT encourages the use of roundabouts. The department’s educational materials for the use of roundabouts say that all approaching traffic must yield to traffic already in the roundabout. Approaching motorists must slow down before entering the roundabout, yield to bicyclists entering the traffic lane and watch for pedestrians crossing the road at one of the roundabout entrance points. Burnett said with the right public education, she thinks roundabouts will help traffic move faster than red lights, hopefully lowering the wait time of drivers trying to enter and exit the Island. At busy intersections such as the Gulf Drive and Marina Drive intersection, it also would allow a safe way for pedestrians to cross the street. Due to several close calls at that intersection with cyclists and pedestrians crossing without a marked crosswalk, Tokajer said he hopes to install a sidewalk railing to prevent people from entering the intersection and signage to direct them to a safe, lighted crosswalk. The matter goes before city commissioners for a decision in April.

To truly make a difference in vehicular Island traffic, Burnett said people need alternate forms of transportation. While the Island trolley does move people around the Island, it still lands in the same vehicular traffic as a car. Burnett hopes to receive Island city support, along with local, state and federal funding, for a complete street project stretching the length of the Island from Anna Maria through Bradenton Beach to Longboat Pass.

If it materializes, the project would see vehicle lanes shrink to 11-feet wide with a designated bicycle lane on each side of the road and pedestrian sidewalks. The bicycle lanes would be brought up to current FDOT standards with a 3-foot clearance between the traffic lane and bicycle lane to help keep cyclists safe. The move also would remove some bicycles from sidewalks along the Island’s main corridor, helping to keep pedestrians safe.

For all the fixes proposed, three challenges remain – approval, time and money. Replacement of the Anna Maria Island and Cortez bridges is currently unfunded and expected to take at least another five years plus the time for construction. Intersection changes also need funding and approval from the state, county or local municipality, depending on whether the road is a local or state road.

In the meantime, all drivers can do is plan ahead, help out their fellow motorists by allowing people to turn across crowded traffic lanes and wait their turn rather than trying to use bicycle lanes as passing lanes, something that can cause a hefty fine from local law enforcement. Bicyclists should remember to travel only in the direction of vehicular traffic and use bicycle lanes whenever possible, yielding to pedestrians on sidewalks. Pedestrians need to remember to be aware of their surroundings and look both ways before crossing a street, even at a crosswalk.

“Just be kinder in traffic,” Tokajer said.