Escambia Holds Off on Beach Roundabout
A roundabout may not be the answer to traffic congestion issues on Pensacola Beach. At least, not yet.
Escambia County Commissioner Robert Bender, who represents the beach, says he has several concerns, ranging from cost to capacity, with the possibility of putting a roundabout at the beach’s busiest intersection.
“We just have questions that just give me pause when I hear the answers or give me more questions, and that’s probably why we’re not forging ahead with the plan right now,” Commissioner Bender told Inweekly recently.
Instead of moving ahead with the roundabout and associated pedestrian underpasses—a plan pushed by players in the beach’s hospitality sector—Bender would like to see if other less intensive measures make a dent in beach traffic issues. Escambia County has already implemented a couple of these traffic improvement components, such as offering a cashless toll option and using an electronic management system to control traffic signals according to need, and the results have been promising.
“I think we have two months of data this summer that showed that it was effective,” Bender said, questioning the prudence of moving ahead with the roundabout plan. “Is it worth spending $10 million?”
Road to the Roundabout
Traffic has long been an issue of concern on Pensacola Beach. On peak summer weekends, like the Fourth of July or during a Blue Angels airshow, it’s been known to snarl drivers in a bumper-to-bumper jam.
In 2016, Escambia County contracted with Volkert Engineering to come up with a plan to address the traffic on Pensacola Beach. The firm conducted a traffic congestion study, gathered public input and held public meetings, ultimately pinning the beach’s traffic problem on three key issues—the inefficiency of the traffic signal at Via De Luna and Fort Pickens Drive as well as vehicle-pedestrian conflict points and a lack of parking during the peak of the summer season.
In addition to shorter-term fixes, such as work that improved access to parking areas and upgraded crosswalks, Volkert’s work resulted in a plan for a roundabout at the intersection of Pensacola Beach Boulevard, Via De Luna and Fort Pickens Road, as well as a series of pedestrian underpasses to facilitate passage from the gulf and bay sides of the island.
The traffic congestion plan, with designs for the improvements, cost Escambia more than a million dollars. Commissioners considered abandoning the effort two-thirds of the way through after questions arose concerning the project’s overall cost but then decided to move ahead.
Delivered in November, Volkert’s final plans outline a project that will run an estimated $10 million—“and, of course, that’s on paper. We don’t know the true cost; we haven’t bid it out”—though the funding has always been up in the air.
Lobbying for the roundabout plan are Pensacola Beach hoteliers, contending that congested traffic on the beach will deter visitors. Last September, the hospitality camp donned matching green shirts to attend a county commission meeting and implored officials to use Local Option Sales Tax funds to pay for the project.
Commissioner Bender, however, isn’t too hip on the plan. He has concerns about the roundabout’s capacity and room for an increase in traffic on the beach, and about traffic coming from Fort Pickens Road being about to enter the roundabout against a heavy flow of right-of-way traffic, and also about maintenance issues related to pedestrian underpasses built so low to the water table.
“It’s not necessarily one thing that gives me pause,” Bender said, “but when you add all these things up…”
Circumventing a Roundabout
Instead of moving ahead with the roundabout project, Commissioner Bender is hopeful that the traffic issue on Pensacola Beach can be addressed in other ways. He points to the recently implemented measures of a cashless toll and automated traffic management system as having a positive impact thus far.
“We saw a huge difference with how long it was taking people to get out to the beach,” Bender said. “I mean, to think that we didn’t back it up onto Highway 98 after we made these changes during some of our busiest days of the summer, I think, speaks volumes.”
Via the automated traffic management system, the county can visually monitor traffic as it makes its way through Gulf Breeze and to Pensacola Beach. An individual driver, in fact, can be viewed to ascertain how long it’s taking a driver to make the trek.
“We know what it looks like,” Bender said. He pointed out that a trip from Gulf Beach to the beach once wasn’t fast.
“It would take over 20 or 30 minutes for some people to get through that stretch on our busier days. That’s probably when we had traffic backed up on the three-mile bridge and stuff like that,” Bender said. “Again, we haven’t had any of that once we made these two changes this summer.”
Both the SunPass-based cashless tolling—which will soon become the only option for drivers crossing over the Pensacola Beach bridge—and the automated traffic management system, Bender said, have helped ease traffic congestion on the beach. The commissioner hopes these measures, in addition to an eventual dedicated right turn lane heading onto Fort Pickens Road, will help continue to ease beach traffic so that the more intensive and expensive plan for a roundabout can be shelved.
Already, the commissioner said, drivers can expect to encounter less foreboding beach traffic than in years past, even during peak times. The question is, will drivers feel like traffic has improved enough to forgo remedies like the roundabout?
“I think if you told somebody, ‘Hey, on Fourth of July, you can go out at almost any point during the day, and it’s only going to take you an extra 10 minutes to get to the beach. Do you consider that to be an issue?’ most people would probably say not,” Bender reckons.