TO: Local Planning Agency
FROM: Bill Spikowski
DATE: April 1, 1997
SUBJECT: Transportation Element
The transportation element is the only portion of your new comprehensive plan that is not currently under contract. On February 17, the Town Council accepted my suggestion of selecting a local engineering firm to prepare the entire transportation element. I agreed to solicit specific proposals, negotiate a contract in the best interests of the town, and return to the Council for action. This memo analyzes the results of this process to date and identifies other courses of action that the Town may wish to pursue.
TRANSPORTATION ELEMENT PROPOSALS
Proposals were solicited from three qualified local firms, all with specific expertise in transportation planning:
Principals: Mark Gillis and Ron Talone
Office: downtown Fort Myers (local branch; firm is headquartered in Coral Gables)
Previous relevant work: City of Sanibel Traffic Circulation Element (1989); traffic impact statements
Specialty of principals: transportation planning
Principals: Jim Banks and George Crawford
Office: Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers
Previous relevant work: Times Square Traffic Circulation Review (1994); traffic impact statements; former director of Lee DOT (Crawford)
Specialty of principals: transportation planning and engineering
Principal: Nanette Hall
Office: Punta Gorda
Previous relevant work: Traffic Volume and Capacity on Estero Island; Parking
and Inventory Survey (Core Area); and Traffic Origin and Destination Survey
(1993 studies for the Estero Island CRA); traffic impact statements
Specialty of principal: transportation planning and engineering
Each firm was contacted by telephone and then provided with a preliminary scope of work (modified slightly from the document prepared by the LPA last summer). Each firm was encouraged to modify the scope to clarify their potential responsibilities and indicate their approach to this project, and asked to provide a specific price proposal for their modified scope. Florida Transportation initially indicated enthusiasm for the project but did not submit a proposal. The other two firms submitted complete proposals.
The two complete proposals were roughly comparable in scope and in price. Highlights of each include:
Public meetings: Up to four meetings included in price
Tasks deleted from preliminary scope: analysis of parking shortages (except for examination of WRT proposal for shared parking in the core area); summary of condition and widths of existing bike paths and sidewalks; nominal analysis of adequacy of street maintenance
Tasks added to preliminary scope: none
Public meetings: Up to ten meetings included in price
Tasks deleted from preliminary scope: maps are to be prepared by others (based on data provided by subconsultant).
Tasks added to preliminary scope: update FTE parking study
Neither proposal included any serious examination of commonly suggested ideas such as water taxis, increased marina capacity, additional bridges, reversible lanes on bridges, widening of Estero Boulevard, bridge tolls, dedicated transit lanes, or study of street maintenance costs.
In addition to the prices specified above, the resulting report and the suggested policies would have to be integrated with the other element of the comprehensive plan to make a cohesive whole, at an additional cost of up to $5,000.
Despite a total cost of almost $45,000 for either proposal (at the very top of our budget), neither would provide substantive help to the town in reducing congestion or in improving mobility. Both proposals are primarily aimed at meeting the state's minimum requirements for a transportation element.
This level of effort by either firm should tend to make the Town strongly able to resist the typical state criticism of neglecting to properly collect and analyze data. But it seems an excessively high price to pay to meet state requirements, most of which are aimed at increasing traffic capacity to keep pace with growth. That approach is of little applicability here under today's conditions of heavy congestion in a nearly built-out beachfront community.
The comprehensive planning process presents similar risks in several other elements, but the Town has chosen to accept these risks rather than make costly planning expenditures in an attempt to avoid them. In the same spirit, I have attempted to provide other alternatives for preparing the transportation element, as described on the following pages.
TRANSPORTATION OBSERVATIONS AND HYPOTHESES
Up to this stage of the planning process we have already participated in many activities that touch on transportation planning:
Several observations and hypotheses are emerging from these activities that suggest an alternative approach to preparing a transportation element:
Traffic on Estero Boulevard moves so slowly during the peak season that it has been the subject of intense scrutiny by traffic experts in recent years. A number of physical improvements are being completed as a result of these studies, including the 5-laning of San Carlos Boulevard as it approaches Estero Boulevard from the mainland. Other improvements have been aimed at relieving the "choke points" on Estero Island that apparently were causing (or contributing to) the congestion on Estero Boulevard, such as gridlock at Times Square. These studies and improvements are the very type of activity that are to be fostered by the comprehensive planning process, but which in this case have preceded it.
One of the strongest recommendations of the 1994 Southwest Transportation Engineering study had been to eliminate left turns from northbound traffic on Estero Boulevard onto Fifth Street, with this traffic to be re-routed along Crescent Street and then under the bridge. This change has not been made, and may not be necessary with the closing of Times Square to traffic. If cars trying to turn left begin to create the kind of obstruction there as they had in previous years, the turn lane can easily be closed and the resulting traffic flow monitored.
The 5-laning of Bonita Beach Road should be completed later this year. This widening will allow more traffic to be diverted to the south than is the case at present. Hopefully the impact of that diversion will be apparent during peak conditions next winter.
The most congested portions of Estero Boulevard are now from Crescent Street to about Chapel Street. Traffic moves very slowly here even in the absence of any of the usual causes of congestion (such as an inadequate intersection, beyond which traffic flows freely). Congestion on Estero Boulevard is aggravated by cars using the frequent intersecting streets and driveways; by the large number of pedestrians crossing the road; by those enjoying the pleasant surroundings; and by those searching for a place to park.
The effects of this congestion, however, are felt far beyond the busiest part of Estero Boulevard, as traffic can back up for miles during the peak periods. Widening the roads further in areas where the traffic is merely waiting in line will not reduce the cause of this congestion.
FREQUENT SUGGESTION #1: Build another bridge to the mainland.
Another access road to the mainland has been discussed for decades but generally dismissed as unrealistic. Under today's strict environmental regulations, if another access road were ever permitted, it would have to be elevated as a bridge, rather than being built on fill as a causeway. This would increase the cost enormously. A third access road, whether connecting Black Island to Coconut Road or at another location, would divert some traffic off Estero Boulevard, tending to reduce the length of lines approaching the congested areas. However, it cannot be expected to appreciably reduce congestion in the busiest areas, since that congestion is a result of much higher demand than this road can accommodate (given the competing needs it must serve). A new access road would also make Fort Myers Beach seem more accessible, inducing more people to drive there, offsetting many of the benefits of the additional road capacity.
FREQUENT SUGGESTION #2: Convert the Sky Bridge to three lanes, with the third lane reversible to match peak traffic flow.
The existing bridge may be wide enough to accommodate three lanes of traffic (although pedestrian access might be compromised). If the third lane were made reversible, as on commuting routes in some major cities, this lane could allow more cars to enter the island early in the day and could speed cars off the island later.
However, current observations suggest there would be little benefit to getting cars off the island quicker. Traffic now moves freely northbound across the bridge, because the 5-laning of San Carlos Boulevard has eliminated the frequent congestion beyond the bridge. Southbound traffic can be backed up for a mile or more before the bridge, but again the cause is the congested conditions that begin at Times Square and worsen past Crescent Street. A third southbound lane might be useful for some limited purposes, such as allowing traffic headed for the north end of the island to avoid the line of cars; or providing an express lane to a parking garage if one were built at on the easterly side of Old San Carlos Drive; or providing an express lane for public transportation. But some drivers would always try to use this extra lane for other purposes, tending to reduce its effectiveness.
FREQUENT SUGGESTION #3: Widen Estero Boulevard.
Since people generally acknowledge that most of the congestion is the result of the multiple demands placed on the busiest portions of Estero Boulevard, an obvious solution is to widen this road, either continuously or at selected locations. This solution is frequently proposed by short-term winter residents who experience heavy congestion whenever they come to Fort Myers Beach.
However, a strong community consensus has developed to resist any attempt to widen Estero Boulevard. There are several reasons for this consensus, in addition to its enormous cost:
5. Despite the gloomy prospects for eliminating traffic congestion, there are some improvements that may be able to improve conditions. Some ideas to be considered include:
All of these suggestions are for modest technical improvements that would not receive intensive scrutiny in most comprehensive plans. A plan typically identifies the most promising improvements for further examination in future years.
The above observations and hypotheses, if generally correct, could lead to a different approach to preparing the transportation element. This approach may be able to alleviate two factors that tend to drive up the cost of this kind of planning. The first factor is that citizen expectations often become very high for a transportation element in a congested community. High expectations can result in numerous unexpected meetings and presentations; evaluations of additional options not identified in the contract; and a sense of disappointment in the final product. The second factor is the uncertainty over whether the state may reject a comprehensive plan that does not guarantee an "acceptable" flow of traffic. Although both firms that submitted proposals understood that the Town intended to bear the responsibility of responding to state objections, this fear likely contributed to the excessively high prices.
As an alternative to accepting either of the proposals as submitted, the Town could accept the five concepts above and then clearly modify its expectations of what their transportation element should accomplish. Many of the state requirements for this element (see Rule 9J-5.019) have little applicability to our situation; another portion of this rule does allow the state some flexibility based on special characteristics of a local government (9J-5.002(2)). Reduced expectations and a willingness by the Town to accept more risk could result in a simpler and more perfunctory transportation element at considerable savings, or in an expanded element at a similar price.
As to the mechanics of this simpler approach, the two firms that submitted proposals could be given an opportunity to negotiate a reduced scope and price, or a reduced scope could be offered to other qualified firms as well. Another approach would be to skip hiring a specialist firm to prepare the entire element; Spikowski Planning Associates could be asked to meet the minimum technical requirements of this element in a manner similar to the other elements, and then contract with an outside specialist such as Walter Kulash for engineering oversight and creative input. Other variations are also possible.
Under any of these approaches, the specific subjects deserving of more study in the future would be identified and pursued following the completion and adoption of this plan. For instance, policies could be included to encourage improvements such as those listed in item 5 above. Additionally, given the impossibility of eliminating traffic tie-ups on Estero Boulevard, policies would identify and briefly explore opportunities for increasing mobility in the midst of congestion. These would include expansion of sidewalks and bikepaths; a water transportation system along the bay side; the creation of a system of "hidden paths" that parallel Estero Boulevard; etc. They could also include some of the more ambitious suggestions that have come forward, such as a boardwalk along the beach, or a trolley/tram system on a dedicated route (elevated or using a portion of the existing right-of-way).
In addition, this plan should lay the groundwork for a system of traffic-calming improvements that would slow the high-speed traffic that intrudes into the community during off-peak periods. This would improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, and perhaps to drivers also by forcing them to slow down, and it may discourage the use of Estero Boulevard for some through trips. Lee County DOT, which has jurisdiction over this road, has given an initial negative reaction to many of our traffic-calming proposals. But this resistance may soften when additional information is provided; or a compromise may be reached; or the Town may wish to take over all responsibility for Estero Boulevard.
We will discuss these proposals and the alternative discussed above at your meeting at noon on April 8.