Fort Myers Beach traffic not going anywhere

Cody Dulaney
  • Only one lane of traffic will be open until December or January.
  • Two lanes will be open the week of Thanksgiving and for the American Sand Sculpting Championship.
  • Officials asked the state for $15 million to cut project's timeline in half, but how likely is that?
Traffic backs up on Estero Boulevard on Fort Myers Beach due to construction.

It's looking like drivers on Fort Myers Beach will have one lane of traffic on the main road longer than expected.

Cars have backed up over the Matanzas Pass Bridge since the major project started three months ago.

Businesses are hurting and some residents feel like the construction is changing their way of life.

And now people are wondering: How much longer?

The town has a history of traffic problems, but when you add construction crews ripping up a one-mile section of Estero Boulevard, it gets much worse.

But last month, Lee County asked state legislators for an extra $15 million to speed up the $70 million project. Officials hope state money will cut the 10-year project in half.

Work on Estero Blvd. on Fort Myers Beach set for summer

The Estero Boulevard improvements come in two parts: the town's water and gas line replacement, and the county's improvement to the drainage system and pedestrian pathways in six, one-mile segments.

During the week, traffic is funneled through one lane with northbound and southbound traffic taking turns moving through.

That’s what is causing most of the problems for people on the island.

Officials were hoping to have both lanes open by the start of November, just in time for the busy tourist season to begin. But the snowbirds are starting to arrive, and now it’s looking more like December or January.

“That’s the nature of underground utilities, you don’t know what’s under there,” said Kaye Molnar, spokeswoman for the project. “You push for a deadline … but it takes longer than you expect.”

“It’s changed our lives”

Christina Possiel, part owner of the Lehne Burger on Fort Myers Beach poses for a photo with employee Juri Peplau on Thursday.  She says sales are down 20-50 percent since construction on Estero Boulevard started.   She understands construction needs to be done but wishes there was more communication when it directly impacts her business.

For those living on the island, every aspect of their day must be planned around traffic.

What used to be a three-minute drive to drop kids off at school has become a 20- or 30-minute trek of hoping and praying to get there on time. And if getting on or off the island is part of your daily commute, you may want to add another 40 minutes or so, said Tim Cherry, who has lived on the island since 2004.

“It’s changed our lives,” Cherry said. “It seems worse than season — at least in season there is a little bit of flow or movement. But now a lot of times we’re just sitting in traffic.”

And businesses are struggling to adapt as well.

Traffic exits Fort Myers Beach on Thursday.

Christina Possiel, owner of Lehne Burger, said her business has lost between 20 and 50 percent of all sales since the construction began.

“It’s not good,” she said. “A lot of locals don’t come to the Beach because they hate being caught in traffic.”

Weekdays are the worst, Possiel said, but it gets better at night and on the weekends. Construction crews have stopped during those times to make it easier on businesses and those visiting the Beach from off the island.

Crews have been working with everyone on the island to alleviate some of the stress caused by their work, Molnar said. And to make it easier on everyone, both lanes of traffic will be open during the week of Thanksgiving, which is the same time of the popular sand sculpting competition.

“Big chunk of money”

Construction continues on along Estero Boulevard on Thursday 11/5/2015.

County and town officials all realize the strain this project has put on business owners and residents on the island, but at the same time; they all say it’s a necessary project that will make the island better in the long run.

Nearly 80 percent of the town’s water main has been installed, Molnar said, but utilities still need to be connected. The county’s portion of the project of enhancing the roadway and sidewalks is about to begin.

But each of the six, one-mile segments takes about 18 months to complete, and the money that is available now requires crews to take time off between each segment.

With an extra $15 million from the state, it will allow construction to continue on Estero Boulevard without stopping, said Lee County Commissioner Larry Kiker. Crews would still not work on nights or weekends.

Fort Myers Beach locals turn out looking for answers

“It would have a huge effect of finishing the project sooner rather than later,” Kiker said.

But whether the state will hand over that kind of cash is yet to be seen.

“Fifteen million straight up is a pretty big ask,” said State Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers. “We appreciate the ask and recognize how important it is, but it’s a big chunk of money.”

A vehicle eases out into backed up traffic onto Estero Boulevard on Fort Myers Beach on Thursday 11/5/2015.

Caldwell said the state could consider a direct appropriation out of this year’s budget, but it’ll take a few months before the county will have an answer on its request.

In the meantime, people on Fort Myers Beach will just have to wait and see what happens.

“It’s critical that we get this project done as soon as possible,” Town Manager Don Stilwell said. “This is a destination spot — people travel from all over the country and all over the world to come here.”

—Connect with this reporter on Twitter @dulaneycd.