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Crawling through chaos

Residents trying to get a grip on gridlock

December 9, 2015
By John Morton - Editor (jmorton@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

A prisoner in paradise?

Yes, that's how Ross Taylor sees his life on Fort Myers Beach these days, thanks to a reconstruction project along Estero Boulevard that is likely to crawl along for years. Crawling with it, of course, is what sometimes seems like an endless stream of cars.

"It keeps me at home," said Taylor, a seven-year Beach resident, from his mid-island front porch on Jefferson Street. "I don't go out and do things like I used to and I don't even think about trying to go downtown or out to eat. Not anything. I run an errand or two when the traffic seems to not be at its worse, but you never know when that is."

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Said his neighbor, Ami Elliot, who works on the island's south end at Santini Marina Plaza, "I've told visitors about the neat stuff in Times Square and they've come back and said, 'Don't ever send me that way again.' They go to Bonita instead."

As for Ginger Weber, who makes the round trip to the elementary school from San Carlos Island at least twice daily for her daughter, logistics are plenty tough now but she fears she worst is yet to come.

"After school I have to count on Bay Oaks (Recreational Campus) for after care because the drive time is not easy to gauge," she said. "There isn't much rhyme or reason to wait times. Some days we have minimal stops whereas other days the traffic can be backed up for an hour to get back on the island. The big scare is, how much worse will it be when we have real traffic."

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Hard to plan for what awaits

Indeed, the fluctuating intensity of the $70 million project, now mostly taking place just south of the Sky Bridge, has produced some tales of woe. The island is coming off a November that saw lane closures as workers tried to tackle some major underground infrastructure projects before the winter tourists and snowbirds arrived for the four-month span known as "season."

"It's like having season without it even being season," said Lacy Lynch, who works at the Hooters restaurant at 1600 Estero Blvd. and lives only 5 miles away on San Carlos Island. "It's taken me an hour-and-a-half to make the trip."

Driving to the beach a few weeks ago from San Carlos Park, Dustin Slawson found himself at a standstill atop the Sky Bridge in the blazing heat for 45 minutes.

"My Jeep almost stalled out because of it," he said. "And this was at 11 a.m. it wasn't like I was in rush hour."

Kim West is also an elementary-school parent, making the round trip as often as six times per day when you factor in the sports schedules for her two kids. Her alarm clock rings an hour earlier then before, and there have been mornings when she pulls out of her San Carlos Island neighborhood and seconds later she's stuck at the base of the bridge.

"I feel like I might as well be taking my kids to school in Tampa," West said.

Other days, she has smooth sailing and finds herself and other parents in the school's parking lot, waiting for the gate to open.

"It's funny, these days you're either 40 minutes early for everything or 40 minutes late. There's no in between," West said. "The lack of predictability can drive you crazy."

Fortunately, Principal Larry Wood has been understanding.

"I've had to grant mass excused tardies on probably 10 occasions since the school year began," he said. "I know getting the children to school on time is a big concern and I have parents calling me telling me they're stuck in traffic and how awful they feel."

In search of info

If only a siren could wail when the congestion starts. In lieu of that, Don Stilwell, the town's manager, encourages residents to visit the town's website, at www.fortmyersbeachfl.gov, for construction updates. "We get a weekly construction schedule and if something happens that motorists need to know, we'll post it immediately," he said. "We do meet with the construction people, so when and where the work takes place is somewhat a coordinated effort, but work can become sporadic. That's just the nature of the beast. One minute all is fine and the next a waterline gets hit that wasn't even on our maps."

Lynch recommends using GPS to get a read on how long a trip will take on a given day.

"It at least helps you prepare," she said. "But it's not like I can avoid it if I have to work."

Meanwhile, the town will do its best to keep both lanes of Estero Boulevard open throughout the busy season, Stilwell said. Further, the work hours are likely to get spread out with the arrival of winter, marking the end of the sea turtle nesting season (Nov. 1). Illumination during darkness is discouraged during the season, so now night hours are fair game for workers.

"But that means some of our businesses who operate mostly in the evenings won't like that," Stillwell said. "It's hard to please everyone."

Then there are the sporadic bus-stop closings a matter beyond the town's control since Estero Boulevard belongs to Lee County, and hence the bus route as well.

"An older couple on Mango Street called me to say that without their bus they now have to walk to Times Square to catch the trolley," said Beach Vice Mayor Dan Andre, who estimated the walk at a half mile.

Challenges are big for businesses

Hooters stood at what felt like ground zero for a week or so, employee Shannon Brindley said, as trucks and workers maneuvered amongst a maze of orange barrels near the restaurant's entrance. The fallout was substantial.

"We went on a three-day water boil when a (water) main broke. That led to some days when sales were under $400. We should be busy right now," she said, gesturing at a dining and bar area that showed only a smattering of patrons. "We aren't even getting our local customers because they can't get here.

"As for the tourists that have come in, they have said they were surprised. They said they were warned in advance, but what they're seeing is even worse than they feared. We have a lot of upset people."

Many of the boulevard's food establishments feature roadside outdoor seating, placing daring diners at point-blank range of the noise and dust.

"Well, the view sure isn't very pretty," said Jason Unger, manager of the Dog House at 1207 Estero Blvd., where a temporary orange-and-white plastic barrier lines the street before him. "Not everyone is willing to put up with this."

Across the street at Beach Bums, 1190 Estero Blvd., the seating lies exclusively outside. The owner there reports business has dipped at least 10 percent since the project's inception.

At the Shamrock Irish Pub, 2201 Estero Blvd., where the outdoor picnic tables are a big draw, business is down as much as 7 percent, owner Mike Hotz said.

"We see the snowbirds sitting out there, but they've just gotten here and they're just happy to be in the warmth, so they'll sit next to anything," he said with a laugh. "What I've lost is a lot of people who live off the island."

Keeping cool in the heat of battle

Despite the headaches and the honking, life on the island is far from a war zone, Stillwell said. In fact, most people seem peaceful.

"I'm very impressed with the attitude," he said of the residents. "At the most I get 10 calls per week, and it's not so much complaining but questions. Once I answer them, people seem to understand and say thanks for the information. All in all, they've been understanding."

Justin Winer is part of the construction crew, making the trip in from Naples. He said he doesn't see much road rage from motorists, but mostly just looks of confusion.

"No one has been nasty and I think most of the people get it," he said. "I've even had people offer me water from their car, or when they're walking by returning from the beach.

"The only people who seem uneasy are the business owners, which I understand. The other day we were doing waterline work in front of Hurricane Tina's and the owner came out and said, 'Of all the days to be in front of my place, why today?'"

Unger even looked at the bright side of things from his view of the construction chaos in front of the Dog House.

"People are walking more, so we're getting them to pass in front of our business. It's like they're stuck here," Unger said. "Granted, it's against their will, but let's make the most of it."

Such as what you'll see down the road at Junkanoo on the Beach, 3040 Estero Blvd., where an inviting and opportunistic sign reads, "Traffic? No problem," and lists the establishment's happy hour specials in hope of drawing in beleaguered motorists.

And then there's the beach itself. Will its white sand and gorgeous sunsets be enough to get everyone through this?

"Is sitting in this kind of traffic for two hours worth it?" Slawson asked himself as he and his friends wrapped up a day at the beach over a pitcher of beer. "Probably not. But we love our beach, so nothing can keep us away."

Duane Waber sat nearby in his beach attire.

"It doesn't bother me it's worth the headache," he said of his frequent trip in from Fort Myers. "It's all about the beach."

And maybe first-time visitor Jeff Trapp, who arrived last week from Lawrence, Ken. to stay at The Neptune, serves as the right person to offer the perfect perspective.

"My sister-in-law has stayed here before and recommended it. I had heard from other people about the construction, but I still decided to give it a try."

Any reason, Jeff, for any reconsideration?

"Hey, I'm coming from 33 degrees," he said, "so I'm not reconsidering anything."

Even Taylor, our prisoner in paradise, knows he'll survive.

"It's a good thing I like it here," he said with a wry smile.

 
 

 

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