Manatee County's traffic congestion worsening but solutions too elusive

April 13, 2014 

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Traffic slowly crosses the Green Bridge into Bradenton. GRANT JEFFERIES/Herald File Photo

GJEFFERIES@BRADENTON.COM Buy Photo

Traffic continues to be an intractable issue around Manatee County, especially in the southwest sector where two giant development projects are on the drawing boards. Fears of future gridlock are rightfully strong and must be addressed.

Current congestion on the Green Bridge connecting Palmetto and Bradenton remains an unsolvable puzzle for city and state officials, as reflected with the tepid reception on all sides to the latest suggestion.

A Florida Department of Transportation official made separate presentations to the Bradenton and Palmetto city councils, the latter coming last week. At the cities' request, FDOT has been examining the issue.

Traffic operations engineer L.K. Nandam proposed new right-turn lanes in Bradenton at Third Avenue West and Manatee Avenue West in the southbound lane for traffic coming off the Green Bridge.

While both city councils showed lukewarm support for the idea, even the FDOT engineer did not speak highly of what would not solve gridlock. At his Palmetto presentation, he stated: "It's not going to relieve the situation, but it will manage the situation."

That's better than the status quo. And the cost is relatively cheap, at some $600,000.

Another idea to hasten southbound bridge traffic seemed simple enough -- adjusting traffic-signal timing. Ask Manatee Avenue drivers what they think of longer waits, like eastbound traffic that backs up several dozen blocks during evening rush hour. Why should Green Bridge traffic get a break at Manatee Avenue's expense?

FDOT went ahead and tried altering the timing, but not unexpectedly the situation simply worsened, as Nandam admitted.

So motorists driving south across the Green Bridge will continue to encounter a slow crawl during morning rush hours, with traffic backing up into Palmetto. Pedestrians can beat cars over the Manatee River, that's how agonizingly sluggish traffic moves.

This year, backups like that occurred during noontime, too, portending a worsening problem. But that could be just seasonal, especially with spring training attracting record baseball crowds to McKechnie Field.

Decades of inaction on major infrastructure improvements as the population and traffic kept increasing has led to today's suffocating congestion. We keep putting off tough solutions.

The DeSoto Bridge, described as "functionally obsolete" two years ago, sits on a long-range plan for study focusing on its replacement. But in December 2012, the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization pushed that study further down its priority list of projects. Just the study will last years, if not a decade, an FDOT official said then.

More delays.

Years ago, the idea of a third bridge connecting Bradenton and Palmetto east of the DeSoto Bridge surfaced but quickly sank. Maybe that should be revisited.

So there's no grand plan on the horizon. We're literally as well as figuratively stuck. We need stronger pressure brought to bear -- with Manatee County's legislative delegation taking the lead in Tallahassee.

Meanwhile, another traffic battle simmers as southwest Manatee County residents arose to protest the proposed Crossroads development, adjacent to the budding Long Bar Pointe project. Crossroads alone has designs on 6,500 homes. Neither 53rd Avenue West nor El Conquisator Parkway can handle that flood of new traffic.

That doesn't even address the Cortez Bridge bottleneck at busy times, a span under study -- there's that word again -- for repairs. The time has come for a serious discussion about building a new bridge extending west from 53rd Avenue.

Should Crossroads and additional expansion at Long Bar Pointe meet county approval, transportation issues must be addressed first.

Else southwest Manatee become another major bottleneck when the county's entire transportation grid needs to be addressed.

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