Numbers vary depending on who's counting, but according to stateofflorida.com, 6,000 people move to Florida each week. As communities strain against their boundaries, the dynamics of travel within and between the whole southwest region-Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Charlotte counties-is changing.

The biggest change? More cars on the road. Way more cars.

But thanks to a web of 25-year outlooks and five-year transportation improvement plans, federal, state and local officials have been preparing to cope with that growth.

Read on for an overview of how their plans and projects may affect you.

Thinking Regional

Today's buzzword is "regionalization." It's clear that commuters no longer view the 50-plus miles between Sarasota and Tampa Bay as a deterrent to good jobs; 6,597 workers now commute from Sarasota and Manatee to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties each year.

The Transit Authority Group, comprised of various area planning organizations and transit groups, meets every other month to discuss regionalization and find ways to meet the demand. Michael Siebel, director of planning for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, says the hunt is on for a site to accommodate a park-and-ride lot at the south end of the Skyway Bridge. An express bus would pick up riders from there and take them north to St. Petersburg or Largo.

Area planners are visualizing a future in which the whole area may be linked by regional transit. Says Avera Wynne, planning director for the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council: "It's certainly not out of the question," musing that the Prime Outlets Mall in Ellenton or the Sarasota Kennel Club on Desoto Road might be logical future staging areas from which to catch a bus to Tampa or St. Petersburg.

Transit in Progress

Manatee and Sarasota counties may have a head start on regionalization. They've already negotiated "interlining service:" one bus that takes riders from downtown Sarasota to downtown Bradenton without a transfer at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. The two counties also are discussing reestablishing bus service on Longboat Key.

"We're at the beginning stage of seamless transport in the area," says Ralf Heseler, transit manager for Manatee County. "Within the next several years, we may form into a total regional authority."

Meanwhile both SCAT and MCAT are undergoing makeovers. Manatee County is building two new transfer stations in Palmetto and 10th Avenue in Bradenton, and will construct more than 20 shelters each year over the next three to five years. Heseler says he's also aiming for half-hour service on some of the heavier routes. The buses have gone from advertising-covered behemoths to clean, metallic blue vehicles, and Heseler is exploring the possibility of swipe cards for fares.

SCAT meanwhile is also working on a makeover, bus stop improvements and starting service at 30-minute intervals on Beneva Road. Where no bus transfer stations existed a couple of years ago, two are up now (at the Venice Depot and Sarasota Pavilion Shopping Center) and one more is on the way in downtown Sarasota on Lemon Avenue. Extra bike racks will be added (SCAT buses carry 55,000 bikes a year) and small "community buses" will be more integrated into regular bus routes. On the downside, rising costs signal a possible shortfall in '05 and '06, and the agency will be discussing ways to deal with it that might call for some cuts in service.

The South County Connection

Once-sleepy south Sarasota County is now a hive of activity, with gated communities quickly replacing empty fields and palmetto groves.

Luckily, much of that growth was anticipated, and residents can look forward to relief from choked roads: In Venice, U.S. Bypass 41 and Center Road are scheduled for expansion this year and in '05 respectively. In bustling, growing North Port, the widening of three main arteries-Price, Sumter and Toledo Blade boulevards-is in various stages of planning, permitting and construction. Further south, I-75 will expand to eight lanes between State Road 681 and River Road between 2005 and 2008. And nearby in Englewood, transportation officials are looking for funds to create the Englewood Interstate Connector, a corridor or series of roads to serve as a capacity or evacuation route for Englewood and Cape Haze.

Even further south: The Charlotte County Metropolitan Planning Organization is studying a widening of I-75 from Sarasota to Lee counties to six lanes. Also under consideration is widening U.S. 41 to the Sarasota County line.

Off the Beaten Trails

Sarasota County residents are no sluggards: Sixty-seven percent of respondents to a county survey say they use trails, greenways or blueways twice a week; 21 percent say trails would benefit their business.

Those active residents should love Sarasota County's Trails Master Plan, an ambitious project that aims to improve existing trails, add more and integrate them all into a system that will allow people to hike, bike, kayak or ride their horses to a series of linked points of historical and cultural interest. Residents could conceivably kayak to Skier's Island from Phillippi Estate Park, or in-line skate from New College to Selby Gardens, or ride through the Carlton Reserve to Myakkahatchee Park.

Six trails exist now; the county proposes to add 34, with $100,000 allocated each year through 2007 and $125,000 each year after that. The goal, says public works general manager Francisco Domingo, is to add 30 miles of trail in three years. One much-applauded project: 13 miles of railroad track along Center Road will be turned into a trail.

Building Capital

With $300 million in planned projects, Sarasota County's present capital improvements plan is the largest in its history, aiming to create a more convenient, better-looking roadway system.

The plan calls for filling in the "grid" of roads-making connections where gaps exist now, and unclogging heavily used roads that face the most congestion. Webber Street, for example, will connect from Leilani to Cattleman, and Honore will stretch from Bee Ridge to Fruitville. Honore is also a candidate for a north-south alternative to U.S. 41 and I-75. Adding turn and through lanes and adjusting traffic signals at busy intersections such as University Parkway and Tuttle Avenue should also ease congestion. Also on the cards is beautification and tree planting for bland thoroughfares such as Fruitville Road-nicknamed "the runway" for its unbroken asphalt views. Fruitville Road will look prettier as medians are installed from School Avenue to I-75.

Sidewalks, drainage and utilities and facilities improvements and additions are also being addressed. "We've been piecing it together," says Domingo. "The $300 million is the final piece to pull it all together."

Getting Technical

Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS, is a constantly evolving field that applies the latest technology to the efficient movement of traffic. Now, Sarasota and Manatee Counties are looking to add a new component here: ATMS, or Automatic Traffic Management System, which will centralize traffic control and use closed circuit television cameras to monitor intersections, bridge traffic and incidents that take place on the roads. At rush hour, for example, traffic signal timings can be altered to allow quicker flow. Already, school signals can be switched off from a remote location on public holidays.

Keith Drake, senior planner at the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, says $20 million has already been appropriated for the project, but no timetable has been set for design and scheduling.

Florida Department of Transportation estimates say installing the system could save Sarasota and Manatee counties millions of dollars in delays and fuel consumption-for example, ATMS could save the City of Venice $1.6 million in hours and fuel-along with the expenditures of road rage.

The Downtown Dilemma

With the sounds of construction rising above the traffic noise in downtown Sarasota, many residents are fearful about future congestion. Add to that a downtown master plan that calls for a walkable community open to the water, and it's clear that change is in the air. The city commission recently approved a downtown traffic proposal and mobility study which recommended, among other parking and traffic suggestions, solutions to the gridlock at Gulf Stream Avenue and U.S. 41.

The recommendation that sparked the most discussion was the construction of roundabouts. One at Fruitville and U.S. 41 has been approved for design, and three others have been proposed at Pineapple and Ringling, Palm and Ringling, and Hillview and Osprey. Also under study: The Sarasota Manatee MPO is examining a possible water taxi service connecting some mainland and barrier key spots.

And of course, lots of roadwork is planned. Various intersections, including U.S. 41 and 10th Street and U.S. 41 and Bahia Vista, will gain traffic lights or extra turn lanes. 17th Street and U.S. 301 are two major streets that will see expansion and improvements.

Up in Manatee

The road through Bradenton is about to get prettier. With $3.4 million in traffic improvement money, the city is getting ready for a complex project to improve Manatee Avenue West from 1st Street to 15th Street West, the main east-west artery through downtown.

John Ormando, Bradenton's assistant public works director, says that as well as lane reconfiguration and partial rehabilitating and repaving, the street will acquire new curbs, sidewalk improvements, decorative brickwork and street lighting. The project should be ready for bidding by the end of this year or early next year, says Ormando.

Manatee County residents also can expect quite a bit of roadwork in the next few years. The county's capital improvements plan calls for the widening of portions of several major arteries, including 57th Avenue West, 44th Avenue East, 59th Avenue West and Tallevast Road in Bradenton, and 17th Street East in Palmetto.

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