A little-known, unused street could make a big impact on reducing traffic in the Times Square area of Fort Myers Beach if Town officials receive positive feedback from Florida Department of Transportation officials and want to push forward on the matter.
Center Street -a one-way street is unmarked and located between Winds and La Playa parking lot- is being looked into as an alternative road to reroute drivers directly onto Old San Carlos Boulevard from Matanzas Bridge or just off Fifth Street. While the street has not been in use, vehicles that come over the bridge turn onto Fifth Street and face a wait at a busy Times Square crosswalk at the corner of North Estero Boulevard/Fifth Street and Old San Carlos Boulevard. The stop sign at that intersection and an uncontrolled, erratic wave of street-crossing pedestrians contribute to a traffic jam.
State DOT officials would need to be involved in the decision-making process since the bridge property line ends at the crosswalk at the traffic signal at the Seafarer's area, according to Florida DOT Public Information Director Debbie Tower.
Center Street, an unused street between Winds and La Playa parking lot in the Times Square area, could be reopened if all officials involved see the viability of using it without negative impacts as an alternative route to help ease traffic in the Town center.
"Before FDOT takes any action, we want to have good conversations with the stakeholders before we take the best step forward," she said. "If there are several steps to take, we want to make sure that there is a good order to those steps. Collectively, we want to have a good idea what are goals are, be very strategic and receive consensus that these steps will be positive steps forward to bring some traffic relief."
Carmen Monroy, Florida DOT's Southwest Florida Area Office Director, said a meeting between all stakeholders would be coordinated through the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization.
"If there was any funding necessary to fund the project, it would allow the project to be prioritized through the MPO," she said.
Mayor Alan Mandel stated that meeting -one that will discuss not only Center Street, but San Carlos Boulevard, Matanzas Bridge and Estero Boulevard- should happen in either October or November.
Councilman Dan Andre introduced the idea of reopening Center Street during a workshop earlier this month after Beach resident John Richard brought it to his attention. On Monday, Andre reinforced the concept is just an idea at this stage.
"We want to see if it is even possible as a tool that we can use. Maybe if we put enough tools together we can make some changes down there," he said.
Richard, a long-time businessman in the neighborhood, said Center Street was really never closed. He said it was altered before Town of Fort Myers Beach incorporation to make it look closed.
"Back in the day, you used to be able to take a right onto Fifth Street, then another quick right onto Center Street," he said. "The owner of the property there on a Saturday night back in the early 1990s just filled in the sidewalk."
According to County records, Center Street is 60 feet wide. Richard would like to see it reopened, not only for the benefit of his own businesses but for the good of the whole island.
"The more cars you get off of Estero Boulevard and under the bridge, the better the traffic will be," he said. "It's the Town's right-of-way and, right now, it is not fully utilized. It would benefit the Times Square and business district. It's a win-win-win."
Joanne Semmer has done some research on Center Street. She stated she cannot find records of that street ever being vacated, but recalls it was accessible in 1979 when Matanzas Bridge was opened.
In January 2006, the Beach Observer ran a story about Council discussing the issue and approving an engineering contract with EPC, Inc. in 2004 "to study the feasibility of reopening the side street to try and help relieve southbound traffic by directing motorists looking for downtown parking directly out of the traffic flow." Back then, Chris Swenson, president of CRSPE, Inc., a Cape Coral traffic engineering company who studied the concept, said his company never conducted computer modeling on the project because it was so obvious that it would take cars off of the road.
"The demand was obviously there from the full parking lots, and we knew that the more that we could take off and the more obvious and direct we could make the access to those lots the less impact there was going to be," Swenson said then.
Earlier this month, Council members re-discussed the subject in a workshop. Andre brought up the matter with a question.
"Can we open up Center Street?," he asked.
Councilwoman Jo List lives in the neighborhood and calls a proposed opening of Center Street a "far preferable route" for her drive home.
"That way I wouldn't have to wait another 20 minutes waiting for traffic to move," she said. "I think it would peel off a lot of the traffic that ends up on Estero Boulevard. A lot of people would find if they go down (Center Street) then Old San Carlos Boulevard, they would discover more parking. Cutting that right turn in there would reveal four more parking opportunities to our visitors before they even get to Estero Boulevard."
Council gave Town Manager Terry Stewart direction to contact Monroy about the viability of a Matanzas Bridge cut onto Center Street. Stewart stated if Center Street were to be open, left turns should not be allowed onto or off of the street.
"There are some technical concerns to overcome," he stated at the workshop.
If traffic congestion can be addressed by a reopening of Center Street, Andre would like to see it happen.
"If the state would say 'yes,' then we would take the next step and have a traffic engineer look at it," he said. "I think it could peel off some of the traffic before vehicles reach North Estero Boulevard. The idea may even tie into a parking garage along the way."