In 2014, Florida broke tourism records attracting more than 97.3 million tourists. Sarasota alone increased its tourism population to 929,000, 5.2 percent more than the year before. When tourism increases, the economy booms, jobs are created and businesses flourish. Unfortunately, there is a catch. With tourism comes a substantial increase in traffic congestion, slowing down residents’ daily commute, increasing the likelihood of an accident and posing a threat toward pedestrians. In order to combat these issues, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has partnered with the Sarasota county and city governments to give the green light to projects that can make Sarasota more efficient and safe for motorists and pedestrians alike.
“The economy has gotten better, the weather up north has gotten worse and we typically have a season where our tourists come,” Paula Wiggins, transportation planning manager for Sarasota County, said. “The snowbirds start trickling in after Thanksgiving and they typically stay through Easter and then they leave. This last year, because of the weather that is going on, people are coming down and they are staying a lot longer. The economy has gotten better and gas prices are considerably less than they have been in the past and when gas prices are low, people feel like they can travel by car again.”
University Parkway is among some of the most traveled roads in the Sarasota area. With the addition of University Town Center mall (UTC), the area has only become busier. Many have cited that over the past few months, the duration of their usual commute has doubled.
“I work in Lakewood Ranch and I have to go down University every day,” alum Ashley Frost (‘10) said. “At around 5:30 p.m. the traffic is bumper to bumper. It is so bad that it takes me 25 minutes just to go four lights down University. It is always congested and it causes a lot of frustration.”
To alleviate these severe traffic jams, FDOT has partnered with Sarasota and Manatee County to install InSync and BlueTOAD equipment down University Parkway. These devices will provide the public with real-time traffic information. Currently, Sarasota and Manatee counties’ traffic signals are time controlled. This new software will allow the lights to adapt to real-time traffic and adjust accordingly. This could help when traffic buildup happens during a big event in the area, an accident and other impromptu occurrences that affect the typical traffic schedule. FDOT will purchase the equipment and both counties will be responsible for installing and maintaining it.
According to Robin Stublen, communications specialist for the Florida Department of Transportation, the equipment will cost FDOT $161,000 for Manatee County and $500,000 for Sarasota County. Both counties will pick up the $80,000 installation and maintenance cost. BlueTOAD works by detecting anonymous MAC addresses through Bluetooth technology on mobile devices such as phones and music players. The software is able to detect the travel time through these devices and use the information it gathers to control the traffic lights accordingly.
“Almost everybody has a smart phone now and that information is being signaled back to see where people are going,” Wiggins said. “Once you have a signal timing put in place you will be able to have the signals read real-time data more so than just having a plan that you have programmed to the lights. The program will actually be able to read the cars and know where the cars are so that the timings can work more efficiently.”
All transportation improvements are a collective effort between FDOT and the city and county governments. Each branch collaborates with one another to discuss major concerns, potential solutions and funding. The Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is comprised of representatives from both county governments who prioritize the projects that are needed the most and report these to FDOT.
“Nothing ever happens overnight, especially in construction,” Stublen said. “There is a lot of planning, there is a lot of regulations – there are just a tremendous amount of things you have to do leading up to the actual turning of dirt, so to speak. So all of those things are worked out in countless meetings with a lot of really good people in all branches of government.”
Construction for another project on University Parkway will start between the end of July and the beginning of August. FDOT is implementing Florida’s first Diverging Diamond Interchange (DDI), an innovation in traffic design. FDOT’s I75/University proposal video describes a DDI as “a proven solution for improving safety and mobility at interchanges by shifting crossroad traffic to the left side of the roadway through the interchange. The DDI resembles a conventional diamond interchange but no matter what direction you are driving along the crossroad you will diverge or cross to the left side of the road through the interchange and then cross back to the right side of the road through the opposite side of the interchange.” The project has an expected completion date of September 2017 and is estimated to cost $82 million.
“I don’t know if you can completely alleviate the problem,” Stublen said of the increase in traffic congestion. “The University, I-75 diverging diamond interchange project actually started years ago in what we call a ‘project development environment study’ (PD&E). That takes approximately two years to literally lay out everything involved that could affect the environment – from the noise level to protective species to wetlands mitigation – all of those things plus the basic type of overlay of what you are going to do.”
Another project underway is the addition of a series of roundabouts for 10th and 14th street in front of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall which sees high traffic volume after an event or during afternoon hours.
“If you travel down U.S. 41 you know that we have some congestion,” Stublen said. “We get a lot of public involvement because for any of these projects that we do, we have meetings where we invite the public to voice their opinions. The public is very knowledgable about their particular areas; they’ll see things in their areas that we don’t necessarily see every time and they can give us some good input so those are some of the things going forward.” The roundabouts are still in design and construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2017. The cost will be approximately $6 million.
FDOT and the city transportation office do not just focus on motorists, but bicyclists and pedestrians too.
“We look at it this way, bicycling and walking are modes of transportation,” Wiggins said. “It’s just that over the past few years that the department has been auto-centered. Bicycle and pedestrian safety is very important to us.”
Stublen cited that FDOT plans to install wider bike lanes and pedestrian refuge islands, areas in the center of the road where pedestrians can exit the bus and safely cross traffic.
“We do not have a dangerous intersection,” Stublen said. “ What we have is the behavior of the drivers that put themselves in situations – people try to run red lights, they come to make a right turn and they don’t come to a complete stop, cars are making left turns into oncoming traffic. We have a tendency as we drive to seem to always be late, always be distracted and these contribute to the crashes that we have. Do we have some areas that have more crashes than others? Absolutely. Those areas tend to have more traffic, more congestion and more frustration among drivers. We don’t have dangerous intersections, we have people who really really need to take a breath, calm down and pay attention.”