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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Bridge, not traffic, study needed at Gulf Drive, Cortez Road

It's not the intersection, it's the bridge that is causing the problems at Gulf Drive and Cortez Road, regional transporation planners agreed.

Another study has been requested for bridge openings at the Cortez Bridge to try to alleviate traffic congestion that at high-season peak times backs up vehicles to the midpoint of Longboat Key and far north into Bradenton Beach and beyond at the Cortez-Gulf Drive "choke point."

Members of the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization Monday agreed to request the Florida Department of Transportation conduct a six-month traffic analysis of what is arguably the Island's busiest intersection.

Results of the expected heavy traffic counts taken in part during "season," MPO members hope, will sway U.S. Coast Guard officials into changing the timed bridge openings at Cortez Bridge into a more vehicular-friendly schedule and help ease the backups at the intersection.

Coast Guard officials regulate bridge openings on draw bridges in the country. For Cortez Bridge, the bascule opens on demand for boaters on the hour and 20 minutes thereafter from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

The hoped-for change will have the draw open on the hour and half-hour during the same time period, or at least during peak vehicular traffic hours - probably from 2-6 p.m.

Bradenton Beach police officers have said that much of the traffic tie-ups result from the frequency of the openings. At peak traffic times, with a number of high-masted boats traversing the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, it can take up to seven minutes for the bridge to open and eventually close.

At times, vehicles going to or leaving the Island are still stopped on the bridge or backed up in traffic when another flotilla of boats comes by and wants to pass through the bridge, creating a traffic nightmare that sometimes lasts for hours.

The new request to the Coast Guard will be about the third such request made in the past decade, all to no avail.

It is hoped that the DOT will begin the traffic counts soon, since many of the previous surveys were conducted in summer-fall months when traffic on the bridge was less august than during the winter season.

Monday's MPO action capped about six months of discussion on the intersection.

First to be discussed was a roundabout there and removing the traffic light to facilitate traffic flow. A special consultant found that a roundabout was very feasible for the intersection, but during recent city candidate roundtables, the roundabout proposal garnered little support among candidates or city commissioners.

Next up was an intersection study to determine what might work best at the site. Cost of the intersection study was originally put at $49,000, of which the entire fund of MPO money for such studies was $50,000, prompting at least one MPO member to question if the consultant hadn't sculpted the study to meet the money available.

Another review of the scope of the intersection study dropped the cost to about $28,000, but Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash said there had already been intersection studies done for the location and that perhaps members of the MPO technical advisory committee should review them to see if any information contained therein would be valid.

The MPO Technical Advisory Committee members reviewed some data and told MPO members that they would not pursue the intersection study because the data they received "was more of a vision statement than a technical report."

Further review of the data indicated the reports lacked sufficient information to be useful, and both the TAC and Citizen Advisory Committees of the MPO recommended that the matter be sent to the Bradenton Beach City Commission for a more specific request for study.

Data from a 1990-vintage traffic study revealed that northbound traffic turning east from Gulf Drive to Cortez Road accounted for 72 percent of the congestion there, with westbound traffic on Cortez Road turning south on Gulf Drive tallying 63 percent of the vehicles passing through the intersection.

In other words, it's all about beachgoers to and from Coquina Beach, or persons going to and from Longboat Key.