Nearly 150 residents of the Vilano Beach and South Ponte Vedra Beach area packed the lobby of the Vilano Beach Hampton Inn Feb. 15 to voice their concern that recent traffic changes in St. Augustine have only exacerbated traffic backups for motorists crossing the Francis and Mary Usina Bridge, creating a time-consuming and unsafe traffic situation for beach residents.
With many dressed in red to symbolize the color of tail lights, the group called upon St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver to remove the traffic barricades recently installed on North Magnolia, Douglas and West San Carlos avenues. Vilano-area residents say the barriers have worsened the traffic woes common on May Street leading from the bridge to the Ancient City.
“I would like to think at this point that we all agree that the barricades need to come down,” declared Vilano Beach resident Lisa Lloyd, prompting a storm of applause and cheers from the attendees of the standing-room-only Vilano Beach Main Street meeting. “I think when more facts are shared, it will be clear that this was not a well-thought-through decision.”
The City of St. Augustine installed the barricades in November to prevent motorists from using the side streets as a “cut-through” to circumvent traffic on May Street. Shaver said the barricades were added after the city studied traffic counts and concluded that the preexisting traffic-calming methods on those streets – including speed bumps and four-way stops – were ineffective, presenting unsafe traffic conditions for residents of Nelmar Terrace.
Those comments led meeting attendees to claim the decision to install the barricades was made with the residents of just one neighborhood in mind – and at the expense of the entire St. Johns County community.
Vilano Beach resident Susan Jones noted that she used to live in Ponte Vedra. If she still lived there, Jones said, she would not want to visit St. Augustine due to the traffic problems.
“It wouldn’t be worth it to me,” said Jones. “I believe we’ve reached a point where this is going to have a negative impact on people in other communities.”
Patrick Stephens, a former police commander in Cleveland and current traffic and public safety consultant living in Vilano Beach, disputed the city’s traffic study that was used to support the traffic changes. He determined via a public records request that there have been 31 uniformed traffic tickets issued and four accidents reported – all without injuries – in the area from Jan. 1, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2016. Stephens said those numbers do not indicate a traffic problem that would prompt the installation of the barricades.
Shaver, however, insisted the city’s data is “as solid as a rock,” and that her team needs to work on better communicating the analysis to the public. The mayor said people are still confused about the source of the traffic backups, which she attributed to the overall growth of St. Johns County. Since 2000, she said St. Augustine’s population has grown by 11 percent to 14,000 people, while Vilano Beach has increased 29 percent to 5,000 people. Shaver added that Ponte Vedra has grown by 8 or 9 percent, while Nocatee has grown by 55 percent.
“Our collective challenge is to manage growth,” said Shaver, who also noted that the barricades have added three minutes of travel time for motorists on May Street who would have previously utilized the side streets. “We’re a high-growth area, and we’re a city people love to love.”
Several meeting attendees expressed concerns over safety, claiming that the barricades will make it difficult for EMS and fire safety personnel to expeditiously travel on May Street during gridlock. Shaver insisted the approach has been thoroughly vetted and that the city, county and Florida Department of Transportation do not have any safety concerns.
The mayor reminded meeting attendees that the May Street/San Marco Avenue intersection is owned by FDOT, since the city sold the property to them after buying it from 7-Eleven to prevent the company from building a gas station there. FDOT will begin to reconstruct the intersection in September, Shaver said, with the project expected to take 24 to 36 months.
Residents asked Shaver if the city would be willing to remove the barricades for a limited time or until the intersection is reconstructed. Shaver said they are constantly assessing the area, and that they have pledged to reevaluate the barricades’ effectiveness in November.
In the meantime, Vilano Beach Main Street President Vivian Browning said the nonprofit organization is exploring a possible water taxi that would travel from Vilano Beach to St. Augustine’s city marina. She also said they’re working with FDOT to attempt to mount cameras on the top of the Usina Bridge to capture more traffic data.