A Florida Department of Transportation study of traffic on Anna Maria Island may rely on technology, public transit and a water ferry or two to make the popular tourist destination easier to navigate.
The Sarasota/Manatee Barrier Island Traffic Study is nearing completion and has been presented to Manatee’s Board of County Commissioners and the Island Transportation Planning Organization. It has more than 70 recommendations that ask motorists and others to rethink the way visitors move along the 17-mile stretch from Lido Key, along Longboat Key and to the north end of Anna Maria Island.
Among them are suggestions for a water ferry from the mainland to Pine Avenue in Anna Maria; various roundabouts on Anna Maria Island; and a $30 million urban cable gondola from St. Armands that “creates an experience as a way to get to the island.”
FDOT even recommends that city and county officials start a charging visitors to park on Anna Maria Island.
None of the proposals are set in stone, but the suggested ideas highlight FDOT’s line of thinking — engineers can’t build more space on the congested island, so visitors are encouraged to leave their own cars somewhere else.
“It’s like trying to stop 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5-pound sack,” explained Nathan Kautz, an FDOT traffic safety engineer and project manager.
“Since this is a national treasure and more people are going to come, we shifted to moving people. We can put a lot more people on the island than we can vehicles,” he added.
A common theme in the list of 77 recommendations is an emphasis on mass transit, and a new set of perks to ensure that buses aren’t stuck in traffic. FDOT is suggesting a number of “transit only” lanes, flex lanes that shift with traffic and giving buses the ability to bypass traffic congestion.
Smaller changes like paid parking, improved signage and an enhanced sidewalk trail system are also recommended.
“We really appreciate the fact that FDOT has taken the time to work with us to come up with hopeful solutions that will help mostly with traffic flow,” said Bradenton Beach Mayor John Chappie. “We’ll always have congestion at certain times of the year, but it’s about trying to move the flow of the traffic to get on and off the island.”
The state agency is working closely with local municipalities, however, and any implementation of recommendations on the barrier islands is up to the elected officials.
“Ultimately, this is a menu and each of the cities have their own culture and things that work well for them,” said Lynn Burnett, a city engineer for Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach.
“These go all the way from adding turn lanes to making the island vehicle-free, so we’re looking at the whole gamut,” Kautz added. “This list is objective and up to the community.”
FDOT is also recommending that island cities consider park-and-ride alternatives on the mainland that provide shuttle services to Anna Maria Island without visitors needing to drive themselves to the beach. New smartphone apps could be developed to help visitors figure out where to park their car on the mainland, check possible bus schedules and even secure a parking spot at the park-and-ride pickup area in advance.
In interviews with the Bradenton Herald, two Cortez Beach visitors were split on whether a park-and-ride system would affect any future decisions when it comes to vacationing on Anna Maria Island.
Livanne Tuxem, who is visiting from Norway, explained that she enjoys the area because of how close the parking lots are to the shore. A bus system would also require more advanced planning, she argued.
“It’s so easy when you can take the car and visit the beach on an impulse,” Tuxem said.
A new park-and-ride system would build on the services Manatee County already provides, said Gene Hiemstra, a frequent visitor from Iowa.
“We like using the free trolley and it would also be a way to open it up for more options when it comes to golf carts and bikes,” he said.
Chappie acknowledged that a park-and-ride system won’t work for everyone.
“Most of the traffic is from Floridians within this four, five or six-county area. They’re coming over and they have all the stuff packed up in the vehicles and they need the room, and to unpack and get on the bus or a trolley of some time is probably not going to happen,” he said.
County residents and visitors alike will get a chance to test that system out when MCAT begins a park-and-ride pilot program from Dec. 1 and April 30. The transit system won a FDOT service development grant to test a new Beach ConneXion Shuttle service from the shopping center at Manatee Avenue and 75th Street West.
But Kautz explained that FDOT’s goal is to “condense” traffic by about 10 percent, which should make a notable difference on the island.
The study draft is still being tweaked, according to FDOT, and should be finalized in January. For a complete list of the barrier island recommendations, visit http://www.swflroads.com/sarasotamanateebarrierislands/.