(By Jim Atterholt) As we are currently going through a renaissance that includes over a dozen significant public/private improvements, it is clear more folks will be drawn to our beautiful island. Traffic congestion can be a significant obstacle to experiencing a high quality of life. Almost everyone has an opinion or suggestion regarding the traffic challenge, and we should welcome them. The only proposition that should be rejected is the approach that declares that traffic has always been a problem on the island and there is nothing we can do about it. It is clear there is no single silver bullet answer that will solve the congestion issue all by itself. There are, however, a litany of steps we can take to help mitigate the problem.
Let’s start by discussing the potential impact of Margaritaville which should open in September of 2023. We all saw how difficult the traffic was during this past 2022 busy season–long before Margaritaville has even opened. So, we know a significant problem already exists on our island. Part of Margaritaville includes a new pedestrian bridge that will go over Estero Blvd. to connect the resort properties which will be open to the public. There will be elevators and restrooms as part of the bridge that will also be open to the public. As locals, let’s set the example for our visitors and use the new bridge whenever we are in the area in order to help traffic to continue to flow. I would like to see the Town incorporate into its Comprehensive Plan incentives for more pedestrian bridges for future redevelopment projects.
As the Margaritaville project is designed, it removes seven entrances/exits on Estero Blvd. which will help to reduce interruptions in traffic flow. Visitors to Margaritaville will arrive via Crescent Street and depart off of Fifth Street. They will have 380 parking stalls underneath the hotel to accommodate the folks visiting the 254 hotel rooms and other amenities. They will also have 75 parking spaces just off the island for employees and will have a shuttle service to take folks to work. The resort will strongly encourage lodging guests to Uber from the airport and not rent cars because the walkability of our island is so good. They will also have a bike and golf cart rental service on the property.
The most obvious development that impacts our traffic situation is Lee County’s recent renovation of our Estero Boulevard. As part of this development, the County infused $79.7 million in a new road surface, bike lanes and sidewalks for our island. These enhanced bike lanes and the new and improved sidewalks have already allowed more folks on our island to leave their cars at home. Additionally, our Town has invested $60 million for new storm and drinking water infrastructure. The newly improved storm water system has dramatically reduced traffic jams caused by flooded intersections on Estero Blvd. after rainstorms.
How do we take full advantage of this Estero Blvd. renovation with respect to relieving traffic congestion? First, we need to finalize a lighting solution. A light fixture is currently being tested by FP&L that, once approved, would allow the Town to work with the County to move forward with implementation. This will primarily help with public safety, but one can make a good argument that it will also help with traffic flow as drivers will have increased visibility at night.
Second, we need to work with the County and the State to better utilize railings or vegetation to channel pedestrians to the proper crosswalks. We have all seen how many pedestrians cross outside the crosswalks which slows traffic flow demonstrably.
Third, we need to implement community policing. This would allow us to have the same officers on our island everyday who will know and understand our traffic problems. These officers can help with the enforcement of rules governing pedestrians, bikes, scooters and cars and intervene when those laws or ordinances are violated—particularly in ways that slow our traffic flow. These new officers will know our residents, neighborhoods and businesses and we will know them. These relationships will arm the deputies with key information so they can help triage the problem areas on Estero Blvd. causing traffic issues—particularly during times of high congestion.
The State of Florida is working on a $6.8 million dollar plan that attempts to improve the intersections–particularly at the foot of the north bridge which could have a dramatic impact on our island. The jury is still out as to how this will impact traffic congestion, but the changes are significant. A great deal of input has already been provided by the Town to the State to stress the importance of facilitating the flow of various Lee Tran mass transit options to the island as well as additional bike and pedestrian access. The Town has also asked the State to reduce the number of proposed crosswalks and encouraged the use of railings and vegetation to channel pedestrians to use the proper crosswalks and traffic signals near the foot of the bridge. The Town Council met individually this week with the Project Manager and I am encouraged the State is listening. This project should break ground by August of 2023 and be completed by the end of 2024.
A new $80 million dollar Lee County bridge will begin construction at the south end of the island in the second half of 2022. The new bridge will be built adjacent to the old bridge on the Gulf side, and, when completed, the old bridge will be torn down. The new bridge will be high enough that it will not need to be raised (which halts traffic) when tall boats attempt to pass, and the bridge will have significantly enhanced capacity for both pedestrians and bikes. It is expected to be completed near the end of 2024.
The Town has recently procured a new parking app that will have the ability to inform anyone who downloads the app in real time where all the available/open public parking spaces are on the island. Private lots will have the ability to join into this system as well. This new system should help reduce the number of visitors to our island who come and wander Estero Blvd. endlessly in search of an open parking place at the right price point. For those who choose to drive to our island, this new app should help to get them parked and have their cars off the road as quickly as possible.
How great would it be to have a ferry boat system during the busy season where folks on the island could walk or bike to a nearby marina and hop on a ferry that takes them to various other marinas on the island and across the bay? These marinas are close to many popular restaurants and bars so folks could then walk to the establishment of their choice after getting off the boat. Maybe that establishment offers them a discount if they can show proof they took the ferry which would help to offset the cost of the ferry charge. Instead of sitting in traffic burning both time and gas, you could be on the bay watching a beautiful sunset on your way to a delightful meal and cool beverage. Nothing is being formally considered on this front, but I want to plant a seed for the future.
This is not an exhaustive list of the potential solutions out there and I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. I do know we can’t be defeatist on this issue because the stakes are too high. Everything must be on the table. Please share with me your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org There is a wonderful renaissance occurring on Fort Myers Beach. In order to fully experience its potential, we need to all come together and work to address the traffic congestion challenge.
Fort Myers Beach Town Council