Manatee-Sarasota officials balk at price tag for mainland-to-islands transportation study

MANATEE -- With an estimated pricetag of $675,000 for a study to look at possible improvements to address seasonal traffic congestion between Manatee-Sarasota and barrier islands, some local leaders questioned spending the money on a consultant.

At Monday's Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting, the Florida Department of Transportation presented the "scope for a comprehensive study to determine infrastructure issues on the barrier islands and identify potential solutions," according to agenda materials.

"We all know what the problems are," Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said. "That's 600 and some thousand dollars that we could actually put into helping to remedy the problem."

Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines pointed to a study conducted about 10 to 15 years ago that talked about a need for an additional bridge.

"Nobody had the political will or the money to do that to plan for the problem that's here now," Hines said. "I'm struggling with the amount of money to go through this ... to tell us many, many things that we already know. ... To me, it's kind of kicking it down the road to have another professional tell us what our own professionals are already telling us and what a study has already told us."

The MPO deferred additional discussion to the next board meeting on Dec. 14.

Manatee and Sarasota officials asked FDOT to look into conducting an analysis of traffic between the barrier islands and the mainland to identify any improvements possible to ease seasonal congestion. Longboat Key spearheaded the possible development of such a study.

FDOT provided an overview of the Sarasota/Manatee Barrier Islands study, which would be conducted in two phases. The first phase would be focused on data collection, observations and identification while the second phase would be using the information gathered in the first phase to develop alternatives and recommendations.

The barrier islands would be split into three study areas: Anna Maria and Holmes Beach; Coquina Beach and Bradenton Beach; and Longboat Key, St. Armands Circle and Lido Key. MPO chairman Jim Bennett suggested a fourth zone to include Siesta Key, Casey Key, Manasota Key and Venice.

FDOT estimated that it would take approximately 1,500 hours of work for each study area, for a total cost of $675,000, not including the fourth zone.

While developing the possible scope of the study, FDOT officials spoke with local groups. Seasonal and holiday congestion, limited parking and beach access roads merging from four lanes on the mainland to two lanes on the islands were among the feedback from local groups gathered by FDOT.

Suggestions from these groups include increasing the number of trolleys on the islands, implementing a park-and-ride lot on the mainland, improving turn lanes and reviewing traffic signals during the peak season.

While currently unfunded, FDOT estimated it would take six months to hire a consultant from once the funding is in place. And then once the contract is executed, the data would be collected during peak season.

"The purpose of the study is to develop short term, long term solutions," L.K. Nandam, FDOT traffic operations engineer, said. "There are short-term solutions that could be implemented during the upcoming peak season, whichever the peak season is after the study is completed, then we would want to pursue that and then pursue the funding for the long-term solutions."

Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle asked whether a new bridge was being looked at for the study area.

Nandam said they do not anticipate looking at a new bridge as part of the solution.

"We were more looking at it from the perspective of how we can manage the traffic that's coming off the island and the traffic that's going on the island," Nandam said. "A bridge is a long-term planning solution that could be studied at a separate effort."

Also on Monday, the MPO:

Named Bradenton City Councilman Patrick Roff as chairman for the next year and Sarasota Mayor Willie Charles Shaw as vice chairman.

Approved FDOT's five-year draft tentative work program, which covers fiscal years 2016-17 to 2020-21. In a video, FDOT said they will spend $352 million on new and existing projects in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Heard a presentation about the Interstate 75/Bee Ridge Road interchange project, which will be a hybrid Diverging Diamond Interchange. While right-of-way and construction is unfunded, the project is in the design phase.

Approved an amendment to the Transportation Improvement Program for FDOT to add $355,000 in funding preliminary engineering for the utility phase of the interchange improvements at State Road 64 and Interstate 75.

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.