Note to readers: As Southwest Floridians embark on another season, when snowbirds and tourists return to the region, we know this means more vehicles on the road. The volume of vehicles from Marco Island to Cape Coral can be staggering. Some people will tell you it’s never been worse. Claude Villiers, Ph.D., professor of civil engineering at FGCU, shared his thoughts with us about the current state of traffic and transportation in SWFL, including how we got here and potential solutions.
How have we gotten to this point in SWFL? What are some of the contributing factors that have led to our roads turning into parking lots?
VILLIERS: It has to do, first, with growth. There is tremendous growth in the population in general, and then again during our snowbird season. Then you have construction. Business construction, new housing, etc. So those two things have a lot to do with the contribution of the traffic congestion. That congestion is especially bad during rush hour, morning and afternoon. It has to do with the number of cars that we have on the road, coupled with the lack of alternative North/South corridors, like US 41 that cross the county for an extended distance say 10 to 15 miles long.
In your opinion, what mistakes have been made from a planning perspective? Is there anything in particular you can point to or highlight?
VILLIERS: I would not call it a mistake. This is a complex problem with complex answers. For example, when governments are planning for future road use, they’re looking at today’s condition, the past condition, and then they’re trying to predict what will happen in the future. Looking at trends, they may have a study that concludes that the population will grow by 2% or traffic in the area will increase by 3% in the next 10 years. But reality may turn out very differently if you had a record increase in growth that wasn’t expected or projected. At the end of the day, we have to use engineering judgments.
Also, construction projects cost a lot of money. Even if you did project a higher increase in population, increasing the land for roads is expensive. Expanding a road could cost us, the taxpayers, between half a million to a million dollars per mile depending on the type of road (highway versus local county road). So, you have to think, do we really have the budget to account for that projected growth? Even if you have a suspicion that growth is coming, finding the money is always going to be difficult.
Projecting growth and planning for growth has always been challenging when it comes to managing traffic that is not unique to SWFL. Everywhere − we find ourselves all over the world, lagging behind.
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What could be short-term solutions for federal or state or local governments to address traffic issues in a community like Southwest Florida?
VILLIERS: A short-term solution is education. I think we have to find a way to educate the general public so that we all can engage and be part of a solution.
- There are times in the day we don’t need to be out on the road. For example, if we don’t need to be on the road at 8 a.m,, but could wait for 10 a,m., that would help ease congestion during rush hour. Encouraging businesses to start work at different times of the day, or even work remotely. To help with this, the government could provide incentives to encourage this.
- Utilizing more park-and-ride systems could help. People drive to a specific location, they leave their car, and they jump on the bus for a short amount of time to get to their final destination.
- Adding a carpooling HOV lane on I-75. Allowing trucks to only use the right lane instead of the third lane.
- Increasing public transportation.
So that’s why I think we have to create an education campaign and start promoting some of these ideas.
We don’t have to wait until traffic gets as bad as Miami for us to really increase our awareness and do something to ease the congestion.
What could be long-term solutions for federal or state or local governments to address traffic issues in a community like SWFL?
VILLIERS: You’re looking at more infrastructure changes in some of the intersections such as the diversion diamond (Colonial Boulevard and I-75), the continuous flow intersection, and other tools that ease congestion. But when we look at SWFL, we don’t have a lot of north-south corridors. We have US 41 and I-75. So, to minimize the traffic on 75 and 41 would be to increase those north-south routes.
The Department of Transportation is engaged to provide a solution to this.
Looking at Interstate 75, what are your impressions of that stretch of road? It’s like the wild west with cement workers, dump trucks, vans with ladders strapped to the roof, trailers, etc.
VILLIERS: Too much local traffic is on I-75. A concrete truck traveling from Naples to Fort Myers is really limited in what roads it can take. Expanding north-south options could alleviate the daily commuters who rely on 75.
It’s going to take education as well to help commuters and local traffic understand that there are alternate routes to take, like Three Oaks Parkway, U.S. 41, Treeline, etc.
More: Airport news: RSW offering additional lot for parking to help with Thanksgiving volume
Are you hearing about other places outside of SWFL and what they are doing to address traffic woes? Anything innovative?
VILLIERS: Let me first say that I applaud the Department of Transportation, both on the state and county level, for looking at innovations to help traffic congestion in this area. The general public may not agree with me because driving around may not reflect this point of view. As I mentioned above, this is a complex program. I believe the emphasis could be more on research for this area. For example, I was reading an article that documented the partnership with Broward County and universities (Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of Florida). https://www.broward.org/PennyForTransportation/Pages/Innovations.aspx
The county and state could look at research to provide road closures in real-time to motorists, the use of artificial intelligence in transportation, and smart cars, to name a few.
If you could make one change to traffic/transportation tomorrow in SWFL, or put something in motion that would lead to positive change, what would that be?
VILLIERS: Education, education, education, and knowing the benefits of sacrifices to help ease the traffic, will eventually help all of us.
Could you talk more about work shift times and traffic congestion?
VILLIERS: If we could shift work times, that would definitely help tremendously. And I think these are the types of alternatives that will be short-term, less costly, that we could look at. But some things like this now have to add up to some incentive. People are not going to do it without having some form of incentive (perhaps in the form of tax breaks).
As a resident of SWFL, what are your personal frustrations when it comes to traffic challenges here?
VILLIERS: As a former resident of New York City, traffic in SWFL doesn’t faze me too much yet. Hopefully, we’re not going to turn into New York.
I know how active the departments of transportations are here (Lee and Collier). They doing their very best and they are implementing safety measures too. The general public may not like the roundabout so much, but it’s a traffic tool that also increases safety.
We have to understand the inconvenience that comes with being able to get up and go whenever and wherever we want. For our economy, we want the people to come here, and we want business to thrive. We want restaurants to have customers, and we want customers to be able to access those businesses. But at the same time, it also comes with a price — traffic.