Escambia County is planning eight traffic initiatives on Pensacola Beach during the off season.
With the exception of a $1.8 million access road that has been planned for years, most of the projects do not include new construction. Rather, they are meant to reconfigure traffic to improve safety and flow, as well as increase parking.
Commissioner Robert Bender, who represents the beach and will propose the projects to the Escambia County Commission for approval, said the other seven projects will likely total under $500,000. The projects are much smaller than the massive overhauls of the traffic infrastructure that have been studied in the past.
Most recently, a $9.2 million plan for a roundabout is on hold because Bender said the county didn’t have the funding for it and he still has questions about how well it would operate.
“They are all projects that we saw were short-term improvements that, again, were a better use of the existing space. None of them would impact the ability to do any future plans,” Bender said.
The off-season efforts are in addition to adjustments to the traffic signal system to help with record high traffic, which include having an engineer watch intersections and operate signals during the busy weekends.
Rusty Branch, executive director of the Escambia County Destination Marketing Organization, said hoteliers on the beach want the county to follow the previous studies on how to improve traffic, like the roundabout plan.
“Small Band-aids aren’t going to fix the traffic problem. They’re going to continue to be there. And we saw that bared out this year during June when the toll booth was open and we had large numbers coming through,” Branch said. “The engineers have told us that you have two choke points, the toll booth itself and then the signalized intersection. If you’re going to open a free flow of traffic on Pensacola Beach, you have to deal with both of those.”
On the other side, Rhonda Dorfman, who lives near Fort Pickens and is vice president of Pensacola Beach Advocates, said her organization didn’t support the roundabout plan because it would be confusing to tourists. She said she’s seen improvements in traffic flow on the beach with the signalized light and cashless toll changes.
“As far as all the proposed changes, I am in support of everything that they’re doing,” Dorfman said. “(Especially) if they want to try to repave that parking lot, because the residents do feel that the parking is the issue as far as with traffic and everything.”
1. Access road
The access road will be two lanes and run from Quietwater to the fishing pier parallel to Pensacola Beach Boulevard and include a continuous sidewalk. The idea is to provide better access to Quietwater and the businesses on the east side.
“We’re trying to just do a better job with managing the space that’s already here,” Bender said. “We think that it will actually have some great improvements for everybody out here.”
2. Casino Beach parking lot restriping
Escambia County staff found that if crews changed the striping of the Casino Beach parking lot, they could add an additional 120 spaces, or an entire lane of parking, to the existing 1,252 spaces.
Instead of the current 90 degree-angled parking spots with two-way aisles, next year, the parking lot will have 45 degree-angled spots with one-way aisles.
3. Protected bike lane
Crews also plan to restripe the Bob Sikes Bridge bike lane and install a barrier. Along with that effort, the number of toll booth lanes will drop to two to provide a safe route for cyclists and pedestrians as they enter the island.
“This way you can get across the bridge safely and now that you only have two lanes from the toll plaza, you’re not going to have somebody try to cut you off as you’ve just gotten off the bridge and so we think this is important for pedestrian safety,” Bender said.
Once the toll was converted to cashless earlier this year, the county has kept only two toll lanes open. The idea is that it avoids cars needing to merge back into two lanes after the plaza.
Bender said residents still have a lot of questions about why there are only two lanes open but during the busiest four hours, an average of 245 more cars have gone through the toll than in previous years.
4. Bike lane markings
Crews will also improve the bike lane or trail markings along the southbound section of Pensacola Beach Boulevard. Bender said a lot of vehicles don’t recognize it as a pedestrian access and pull over on it.
5. Reconfigure Fort Pickens Road approach
Often during the busiest times on the beach, traffic coming from the Fort Pickens area doesn’t let traffic exit from the Casino Beach parking lot, so much so that sheriff’s deputies have to control traffic at times.
To solve this, the county plans to change around the configuration of the lanes on Fort Pickens Road as it approaches the Pensacola Beach Boulevard intersection.
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Currently, there is an acceleration lane in front of the Surf and Sand Hotel. That will be turned into a left turn lane onto Pensacola Beach Road to shift the lanes over and allow spaces for a lane exclusively for those exiting the Casino Beach parking lot.
Once onto Fort Pickens Road, Casino Beach traffic will have to merge after the exclusive area ends.
“Giving this protected area to the cars exiting the beach parking lot we think would again help traffic flow within the parking lot and then also cars that are coming down Fort Pickens,” Bender said.
6. Turn lane extension
The county has plans to extend the right turn lane on Pensacola Beach Boulevard to Fort Pickens Road by 800 feet and use the existing asphalt on the road.
The county completed a one-hour study between 9 and 10 a.m. the Saturday before Memorial Day this year that showed 36% of the cars turned right at the intersection.
Bender said while this won’t necessarily be needed in the off season, it will allow more cars to exit the main lanes at the light.
7. U-turn addition
Bender is also proposing a u-turn on Pensacola Beach Boulevard just south of the toll plaza. This will provide another option, in addition to the access road, for cars leaving the Grand Marlin area to turn left.
“You’re not going to feel like you’re adding a lot of time just by going up a few extra hundred feet to make a u-turn. More importantly though, this is safer way to make that left turn from the parking lots on the east side of Pensacola Beach,” he said.
8. Marketing effort
Escambia County will begin a marketing campaign to educate beachgoers about other transportation options on the beach, including the ferry from downtown to Fort Pickens as well as the beach trolley and shuttle service.
“It’s really just a marketing campaign that we can do. … Let everybody know what the options are, let our visitors know that maybe you don’t need to take your car to Quietwater in the evening. You can grab the trolley,” Bender said.
Madison Arnold can be reached at [email protected] and 850-435-8522.