PUNTA GORDA — What began with a goal to curb the Punta Gorda “drag race” on northbound U.S. 41 near the Peace River Bridge has expanded to a multi-year study from the Florida Department of Transportation that most local officials don’t even want.
“You’re going to do the whole thing and design it only to come back (to us) and we’re going to say thanks for all the hard works guys but we’re not interested,” said Charlotte County Commissioner Christopher Constance, who also serves as Charlotte County-Punta Gorda Metropolitan Planning Organization Vice-Chair.
The MPO is made up of representatives from the County Commission, the Punta Gorda Council and the Charlotte County Airport Authority.
Currently, the switch from three lanes to two lanes right before the bridge causes snarls as motorists in the left lane — a left-turn only lane from Marion to the bridge — try to merge to cross the bridge, increasing the likelihood of vehicle crashes.
The City Council went to FDOT last August to explore options at this section of roadway to be included as part of the department’s repaving project planned for Tamami Trail (U.S. 41) from William Street to the bridge.
At Monday’s MPO meeting, board members said the feasibility study, which could potentially cost taxpayers $375,000, would be a waste of time and money.
“What are we trying to fix,” said Punta Gorda Mayor Lynne Matthews, who also sits on the MPO board. “Other than an occasional person who merges from the left lane to the next lane over to go over the bridge, that’s the only issue that we really have here.
“I completely understand the need to make things safer but I am totally opposed to doing a lane repurposing in the city center downtown.”
Matthews went on to say that taking any of the three northbound 41 lanes out of service would be irresponsible.
“I think it’s completely ridiculous to even consider it. Just from Marion Avenue to the bridge, you have seven left turn possibilities,” she said.
Crash issues in that section of the roadway are not speed related but rather due to irresponsible drivers not paying attention, according to Matthews.
Constance suggested FDOT paint more “left-turn only” markers so they extend the entire section of the left turn lane.
“(That then says) ‘You better not be in that lane unless you’re turning left on Retta Esplanade or left into the businesses because if you start going and then pop over (into the middle lane), you’ve got a problem,’” Constance said. “Hey, I just saved us $375,000, minus a little paint.”
For the study, FDOT representatives told the MPO board they will also explore options for making the roadway safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Constance said they should encourage use of the less active streets nearby the busy roadway.
“(Try to) take a holistic approach to moving traffic through that corridor and part of that is there is a street to the east and west and if you can move bicycles and pedestrians off (41), out of harm’s way and still get them to the bridge or get them to the waterfront, they’re going to thank you,” Constance said.
Matthews echoed Constance’s sentiment.
“Keep them (bicyclists and pedestrians) off of U.S. 41; it’s not safe,” she said. “It’s not safe for people to bike on 41.”
Richard Oujevolk, an engineer on the FDOT project, said that they will take the board’s comments into consideration as they move forward with the study.
“As a part of any (repave and rehabilitation) job, we are going to include sidewalks and make sure everything is ADA-compliant,” Oujevolk said. “Nothing is off the table. That’s why we’ve been meeting extensively and going to have very extensive public involvement plan over the next two or three months.”
FDOT’s current timeline has possible construction for the project beginning several years from now.
Oujevolk said that as they proceed with the study, certain elements regarding bicycle paths and other lane-related changes might not be included.
“This is a very dynamic study,” he said. “If elements drop out and it would revert back to (just) rehabilitation and repaving (of the roadway then), a lot of the study costs would go away because it would turn into just a minor action.”
“At the end of the day, FDOT will repave,” Oujevolk continued. “It’s just (that we have to) look at trying to incorporate more positive safety elements, look at the quarter more holistically and address city concerns.”