Could roundabouts be the answer for this neighborhood’s traffic problems?

How roundabouts work

Roundabouts, used in place of stop signs and traffic signals, are a type of circular intersection that can significantly improve traffic flow and safety, according to the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In this 2010 video, IIHS ex
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Roundabouts, used in place of stop signs and traffic signals, are a type of circular intersection that can significantly improve traffic flow and safety, according to the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In this 2010 video, IIHS ex

A traffic management presentation on potential roundabouts out east turned into a full-blown criticism of all the problems with all Manatee County roads.

Traffic officials proposed a handful of roundabouts in Lakewood Ranch to slow down the flow of increasingly deadly traffic. The board didn’t doubt the need for those fixes but pointed out other areas in need of infrastructure enhancements.

Narrow roads, speedsters causing accidents and traffic jams are issues throughout the county, they said.

The roundabout proposal focused on the most problematic areas out east. Commissioner Vanessa Baugh agreed that it’s an issue that needs fixing.

“There is going to be a need and that’s the bottom line,” said Baugh, who mentioned that she would have liked to see more specific recommendations from the traffic team. “We do need to look at Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and make a decision on the steps we’re going to take in the future because they’re necessary.”

Suggested roundabout locations along Lakewood Ranch Boulevard included at Balmorral Woods Boulevard, Water Crest Way and Clubhouse Drive. Other possible sites mentioned for traffic circles were along Honore Avenue, at Old Farm Road and Cooper Creek Boulevard.

Sage Kamiya, deputy director of public works, said sources of funding still needed to be considered.

Commissioner Betsy Benac welcomed the idea of using roundabouts, which have become the Florida Department of Transportation’s preferred traffic control device, because they’re safer than intersections with traffic signals.

A truck navigates through one of the three roundabouts at The Mall at University Town Center in this Herald file photo File photo

“People are learning to use roundabouts. They slow traffic down and that’s a good thing,” said Benac. “Some people use these roads like highways.”

Board members didn’t choose which roundabout projects they’d like to pursue during Tuesday’s work session, but they did note where else they had seen issues with traffic and the county’s transportation infrastructure.

Benac said she’s seen issues with a four-way stop at Old Farm Road. Commissioner Robin DiSabatino raised complaints with the “nightmare” at 37th Street East. Commissioner Charles Smith called Honore Avenue “a complete disaster.”

Each commissioner said they’ve heard from their constituents about local traffic woes. But how can they alleviate all the problems? County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said the issue is bigger than local government.

“At the end of the day, when you step back and look at this, it’s really a problem of revenue. It is the state and federal government’s failure — I use that word intentionally — to adjust gas tax revenues,” he explained. “They haven’t been adjusted in forever, and that revenue is flat because the more efficient cars get, and the more of those Teslas that get purchased, the more that revenue gets diminished. The revenue stream is a flat line, but the cost of building keeps going up, so your dollar can’t cover as much as it used to.”

Another possible funding source are impact fees, which are one-time payments developers make to fund infrastructure needs. The commission earlier this year voted to cap the fees, which are usually passed on to the buyer of a new home, at 90 percent of what a consultant had recommended, instead of raising it to 100 percent as had been scheduled.

Commissioners concurred that if they had unlimited access to money, they could get rid of Manatee’s traffic headaches, but in the meantime, they suggested taking a look at changing the county’s policies on infrastructure planning.

“We know we’re growing. We’ve seen the statistics and the date that show we’re one of the fastest growing communities in the nation, but we’re still not changing our policy,” Smith said. “We know (new residents) are coming, so we need to move money into infrastructure and start looking at these things. ... We’ve got to have a change.”

The work session was a lesson in just how difficult transportation planning can be, said assistant county attorney Bill Clague, who pointed out that the county is still trying to figure out how to pay for the eastern expansion of 44th Avenue East.

One of the solutions, the board suggested, was to take a hard look at the county’s policies on traffic management and planning as development continues to flood the county. While Smith said that there are laws that require them to approve certain plans, Benac noted that proper infrastructure planning is built into the land development code.

“We wanted to talk about some roadway improvements that are unfunded,” Hunzeker said of the staff presentation. “I think we need to back up a little bit and look at the capital improvement plan we’ve adopted over five years and the sales tax program for transportation over than next 15 years.”

Hunzeker pointed out that Commissioner Stephen Jonsson has previously suggested switching out projects in the capital improvement plan with ones that are of a higher priority, which would leave other projects unfunded. Clague said that’s an issue the entire state is facing.

He said a bill that state legislature passed in 2011 regarding growth management plans tied the hands of Florida’s local governments. The statutes “really hurt us,” Clague said, referring to the bill which was designed to get development going during the recession.

“The problems you all are talking about aren’t unique to Manatee County. There are boards struggling all over the state. If the board wants to have more tools, you ought to take that up your lobbyist and the Florida Association of Counties,” said Clague. “That’s a statute the legislature has the power to adjust.”

Chairwoman Priscilla Trace said the board would hold an in-depth conversation on Manatee’s long-term traffic funding at a later date.

The Florida Department of Transportation is planning big changes to the Interstate 75-U.S. 301 interchange in Ellenton. New bridges will be constructed over the Manatee River for a northbound exit ramp and a southbound entrance ramp.