LCSO Talks Beach Traffic

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“No Magic Bullet”

Two Lee County Sheriffs Office (LCSO) representatives addressed the Fort Myers Beach Town Council at their Management & Planning Session on Thursday morning, February 6. LCSO West District Commander Matthew Herterick and Lieutenant Dennis Petracca, with the LCSO’s Traffic Unit, discussed possible ways to assist FMB traffic flow with season underway.

“We are here to address your complaints about beach traffic,” began Captain Herterick. “To help with this, Lieutenant Petracca, the Traffic Unit Assistant Commander, is with me. He is a 27-year LCSO veteran including 24 years on the Traffic Unit, and he works the Fort Myers Beach detail, so he is well-versed as it pertains to these issues.”

Captain Herterick related, “I first moved to Lee County from New England in 1996, when I was in my early 20s, and quickly learned that around this time of year, if you were going to Fort Myers Beach, you did so before 9 a.m. or you would be stuck in traffic for a couple of hours. I eventually pursued a career in law enforcement with the LCSO and you think your primary duty is putting bad guys in jail, but a large part of what we do is solving quality of life issues by working collaboratively with your community partners. From my observations, it seems there is an uptick in seasonal traffic earlier this year than normal, so we want to put all our heads together to discuss what we can do to alleviate these traffic concerns.”

No Magic Bullet

“Basically any Lee County Deputy can sign up for the FMB Traffic Detail,” he said. “We have a Coordinator who produces a narrative program for the Detail so every Deputy does exactly the same thing. When working the traffic light at the island side of the Matanzas Pass Bridge, they are to be out of their vehicle and holding up pedestrians until a relatively large group forms, to keep vehicular traffic flowing. We take this very serious and we hold them accountable, but please remember there is the human element. When you see a family pushing a baby carriage, it is human nature to want to stop traffic, to ensure the baby crosses safely, but this creates a monitoring issue with the public, so we reinforce that you must assemble a group of people and wait for a natural break in traffic for them to cross. There is, however, no magic bullet that will fix the Fort Myers Beach traffic problem in season, so we hope you understand that we are doing the best we can. Education is the best way, where we pass out pamphlets and shake hands, but there is a different group of vacationers here every week, so we need the help of the community and business owners to boost awareness and bring us all together. With that said, we are here to hear your concerns.”

Council member Joanne Shamp responded, “We are not supposed to clap in Council Chambers, but if I could, I would!” Mayor Anita Cereceda asked if “VOICE (Volunteer Observers Impacting Community Effort) members are given the same directions?” “Yes,” said Captain Herterick. “We bring all VOICE officers together to share the same message.”

Education Over Tickets

Lieutenant Petracca said, “I started with the LCSO in 1993 and my first duty was Fort Myers Beach, and I worked the Traffic Detail for the last several years. At the traffic signal, we hold them for a reasonable amount of time, to try to get a big group all across at once, though you cannot just hold a few people back too long. It is my observation that the VOICE officers let pedestrians go too often, so we are discussing this with them to alleviate the problems. Another issue is the LeeTran stop by the former McDonald’s restaurant, as that bus can be there for 3 to 5 minutes, so while that helps pedestrians cross, it inhibits traffic. That stop was formerly by the Lighthouse Resort and we do not know why they moved that location, as that makes traffic worse and creates a bigger problem. We know how important tourism is, so we don’t want to just write out tickets, preferring education, as that is a step in the right direction, but this is still a work in progress. This is an ongoing issue, as there is no perfect way to move traffic. People cross Estero Boulevard anywhere they want, with drivers stopping as a courtesy, but there are always things we can tweak.”

Shamp suggested that the Town speak to LeeTran about returning the trolley stop to the Lighthouse location. She would prefer not to ticket pedestrians and wondered about appropriate signage to direct people to the crosswalks, where they could find more traffic information as an alternative to a brochure. She offered that in previous seasons, she could leave the island south, “but now traffic there can back up sometimes almost to Lovers Key State Park, so now I just go north and add to that problem traffic.”

Council member Rexann Hosafros stated, “I observed the north end three times in the past week and not once were there more than two people waiting, yet six times deputies let them cross. I had to go to Downtown Fort Myers, and when I was near the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, they held back folks until there were about 30 people they let cross all at the same time. I realize that is a tourism location but I feel the message you are telling your people is not getting through.”

“We take this seriously,” replied Captain Herterick. “We now assign a Patrol Sergeant to make sure the officers are observing these rules, and one of our Lieutenants comes twice a week so everyone knows we are paying attention.” Hosafros suggested the Town install a new traffic camera, with that technology available to the officers “so they can see how far traffic is backing up.” “That is a great idea,” enthused Captain Herterick, “so they have that complete view!” Lieutenant Petracca stated, “pedestrians get mad at me when I make them wait, then the frustrated ones leave and cross Estero Boulevard someplace else. It is a balancing act.”

“Drives Me Bonkers!”

“This drives me absolutely bonkers,” exclaimed Council member Bruce Butcher. “When I travel to places like California that has a lot of beach cities, people do not jaywalk and cross wherever they want, so somebody has found a way to make them follow the law. In my opinion, this is a cultural thing.” “You are 100% correct,” agreed Captain Herterick. “It is a cultural thing, through education and conversations from community leaders as ambassadors and the business community. It must start somewhere.” “It is a free-for-all at the Lani Kai Resort,” added Butcher, “with people going back-&-forth. To be blunt, there is a Sheriff’s Officer at the 7/11 store but they just hang out in the parking lot; they need to grab some of these people and start issuing tickets, and that includes bicyclists. Who can we call at LeeTran about that trolley stop?” Town Manager Roger Hernstadt replied he is already in contact with the LeeTran Director.

Butcher added, “There needs to be a Sheriff at the light until 8 p.m., or at least 7, as traffic is jammed up to 7. We need handrails from the light to Crescent Street or the Lani Kai, to move people through the crosswalks in that area, as that is the big problem. We’ve talked about this for a year now.” Vice Mayor Ray Murphy suggested signs directing people to the crosswalks, with permanent signage there to permanently memorialize the message, “though I hate more signs!”

Butcher stated that more signs “do not have to be everywhere, but from the light to the Lani Kai and Crescent Street, as that is the bottleneck.” Cereceda agreed “that is the biggest bottleneck. The thing I hear most from our residents is the officer sitting in their car at the 7/11, as the typical ‘cop in the donut shop!’ They must move around that area, as our residents would like to see that.”

Captain Herterick concluded, “Fireworks three years ago was a big issue on the beach, yet this year, we received no complaints, as we successfully put that message into place, but you have to crawl before you can walk or run. We will spread the message but it takes time. We appreciate your patience and we will do the best we can to make this work. We will have deputies until 8 p.m. but we schedule three weeks out, so we will do our best to make that change quickly. Remember when Spring Break starts, there will be a larger law enforcement presence than you usually see here. This is our community too, and we thank you for allowing us to be a part of it!”