During the pre-planning stages of re-constructing the County's main roadway on Fort Myers Beach, residents have long expected traffic mitigation to be part of the equation. Unfortunately, there is only so much one can do with 50 feet of right-of-way along the core area and civic complex segments of Estero Boulevard. Modifying traffic solutions appeared undoable.
Now, due to a recent finding that Matanzas Bridge can physically support three lanes, comes a possible solution to help traffic flow to Estero Island.
The concept would be to continue to have one permanent lane onto the Beach and off the Beach and also have what is technically called a reversible lane, an alternating center lane, on the bridge and for a portion of Estero Boulevard. The idea would focus on the ability to have two lanes of traffic going over the bridge, onto the Beach and onto two lanes on Estero Boulevard during high traffic times (possibly mid-morning to sometime in the afternoon) and switching the center lane traffic flow to allow two lanes leading off the Beach on Estero Boulevard and on the bridge during peak traffic congestion times (possibly afternoon to evening).
Since the bridge has been found to be able to withstand three lanes of traffic, a study and test run will focus on a reversible lane, known as an alternating center lane.
Beach Mayor Alan Mandel and Town Manager Terry Stewart represented the Town during a recent meeting that included the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Florida Department of Transportation. Mandel will also speak with Florida Sen. Lizbeth Benicquisto in the near future about the approach.
"What we learned was that the bridge at the north end of the island can support three lanes of traffic," said Mandel. "But, I certainly don't want to slow the start or the completion of the Estero Boulevard project. We need to stick to our schedules on that."
The concept of an alternating lane is not new to the Beach. Mandel said Mayor Dennis Boback's council looked into this during his tenure years ago.
"Many other Councils have considered solutions similar to this. In the past, I believe they were told the bridge would not hold three lanes of traffic," he said. "I don't think it was asked again. It got perpetuated."
Mandel stated further conversation with state officials and County MPO Director Don Scott yielded more positive results. The study first needs County Commission approval after Council gave consensus on May 20.
"They are going to prepare an overview plan of what would be involved if we had the alternating lane on the bridge," Mandel said before consensus was given. "The State said it will go ahead and do the plan if both the Council and the County Commissioners gives consensus to do that."
Scott confirmed a test run may be planned in the future during offseason times. He said the study prior to the test run would involve finding limitations, operational aspects such as signage, density of traffic and double lane transition points.
"I think (the test run) should be when there is little less traffic, but not totally offseason. I believe Florida DOT called it a 'soft opening'," Scott said.
Mandel agreed one of the goals would try to get that soft opening' before an upcoming tourism season, but will leave it up to the engineers and other experts in that field to come up with the proper time. There was also full agreement at the officials' meeting not to interfere with the study about a dedicated trolley lane on San Carlos Boulevard.
Florida DOT's Debbie Tower agreed the reverse lane proposal came from Mandel and Stewart, that no decisions were made and that a study needed to be done before any consideration. She also stated the state DOT structural engineers did confirm the existing bridge can handle three vehicle travel lanes.
"We need to understand the traffic patterns, how traffic would move and, importantly, if two lanes of traffic were brought across the bridge, where does that traffic go when it crosses the bridge," she said. "That clearly is a big part of the equation."
Tower is also hoping the study, which she could not comment on the start or completion date, will prove efficient and that a "pilot project" would happen shortly afterwards. The reversal lane would eliminate a dedicated trolley lane on the bridge would be longer if approved.
"We noted to the (meeting) group that it might be a bit of an aggressive schedule to try to do this kind of test run next season. We still need to determine the parameters of a proposed study," she said.
Now that Council has given consensus to allow a study and County Commissioners expected to follow suit, the next step is to determine where the funding for such a a study will come from before beginning to define the parameters for the study in sense of what needs to be understood and evaluated, according to Tower.
Councilman Joe Kosinski, an engineer by trade, thought the idea of a bridge alternating lane would work well if planned right.
"This means we have the flexibility that we could work it in with alternating lanes coming onto the Beach then, in the evening, the center lane would reverse and go off island," he said on May 20.
Though the overall Council consensus saw this as a step in the right direction, Councilwoman Jo List threw caution in the wind.
"We spend millions of dollars to get tourists over here and do nothing to figure out how we are going to handle an amazing amount of traffic as a result," she said on May 20. "At least this is a positive step in the direction of thinking beyond getting them here and actually figuring out what to do when they are here."
Councilman Dan Andre stated the two lanes going off island should only be implemented after DiamondHead Beach Resort. He expressed concern about pedestrian crosswalks due to the center lane becoming a "kill lane."
"What happens when the right-lane traffic stops and a car is flying down the center lane? Hopefully, they could address that pedestrian issue in the study," he said on May 20.
Lee DOT has been working in conjunction with the Town of Fort Myers Beach in seeking comments and suggestions through an online website and workshops during a project team's development of preliminary design plans for improving Estero Boulevard from Crescent Street to Big Carlos Pass. There has only been one workshop so far.
Proposed improvements to Estero Boulevard include crosswalks, bike lanes, landscaping and more.
Conceptual designs of the future six-mile stretch of the boulevard have been shown. The idea is to make the roadway safer for multiple users like bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists, according to Lee County Department of Transportation Director David Loveland at that first workshop.
The road project plans were not designed to alleviate traffic volume or reroute motorists to rid the traffic congestion problem that has been a longtime scar on Fort Myers Beach during high-capacity tourism months.
The Estero Boulevard Improvements Project will involve concepts presented in the Town of Fort Myers Beach Streetscape Master Plan completed in 2000, information gathered during the 2008 Estero Boulevard Analysis and Design and a right-of-way study.
Improvements on the Beach's main road are expected to begin during the 2014 fiscal year. Only one segment has been budgeted (rough estimate: $7 million) of the six-mile project. Another mile-long segment is expected to be in the County's 2013-14 budget.
"The limits are to be determined based on the results of this preliminary design study," said Loveland back in late February. "As we go through this process, that will help us determine the segmentation or how we are going to break it up and which piece is the highest priority. Then, we will refine everything with details for each section."
The study should be finished by fall 2013, making way for construction the following year. Once the preliminary design is completed, a final design permitting phase is next before any construction can take place.
"It'll probably be later in the 2013-14 fiscal year before we get to construction," Loveland said at the workshop. "This effort will give us a plan for the whole six miles. That way we'll have an idea of where all the utilities, sidewalks and all of that are supposed to be within the right-of-way. The rest is kind of dependent on money."
The Town Streetscape Master Plan includes six segments: the completed North End, Core Area, Civic Complex, Quiet Center, High Rise Resort and South End.
Due to only 50 feet of ROW on the Core Area and Civic Complex, two options for design on those sections of the County-owned road involve one that keeps the middle turn lane but, due to only eight feet for pedestrian use, doesn't have separate bike lanes, and another that offers the bikes lanes, but loses the middle lane for turns. Standards for both sidewalks and bike lanes are five feet for each.
At the recent officials' meeting, Mandel stated County Commissioners agreed work on Estero Boulevard should coincide with the Town's utility work.
"They also said that traffic mitigation should be an aspect of the plan if we do work on Estero Boulevard," he said. "In other words, why take care of Estero Boulevard if cars can't go anywhere.
Now that another idea has sprung to alleviate traffic, there are hopes that a dual project may happen in the near future. If possible, Mandel would like to see the 'test run' before the 2014 season.
"People have talked about traffic on the island for years," he said. "Maybe, we can stop people complaining about it."