Tourism, population growth drive St. Augustine congestion

By Katie Garwood |

St. Augustine’s Spanish settlers weren’t concerned with vehicular traffic.

Now 451 years later, that’s starting to catch up with oldest city in America, where congestion and back-ups are at an all-time high.

“We have a city that was laid out in 1565 being confronted with 21st century traffic and modes of transportation,” said Mark Edwards, a former managing director at AAA. “We have a city that was designed before anyone was conceiving of cars other than Leonardo da Vinci.”

Former St. Augustine mayor George Gardner is no stranger to mobility issues in his North City neighborhood.

Cars queue up at the Vilano Bridge from the traffic signal at the May Street, San Marco Avenue intersection. This fall, construction will begin on a traffic loop to ease congestion in the area. Photo: Katie Garwood

“It was always a breeze,” Gardner said of his drive into downtown 15 years ago. “Today we’re waiting to get out onto San Marco and on weekends, it’s a toss up between staying home or working our way over to us1 and making our way into town.”

In a recent National Research Center’s National Citizen Survey for St. Augustine, nine out of ten respondents said they support improving pedestrian and bicycle mobility, as well as changing traffic flow during times of heavy congestion.

Reuben Franklin, the city’s mobility program manager, said the growth of tourism and population growth in St. Johns County are largely responsible for St. Augustine’s mobility challenge. In 2014, 5.3 million tourists visited St. Augustine. In 2015, 6.3 million visited, and while numbers are being processed for 2016, those too are expected to grow from the previous year.

And as St. Johns County grows, more visitors from the county come to visit St. Augustine. In 2010, the county’s population was around 190,000. In 2015, it grew 19 percent to 226,000. Florida’s average county grew 4.6 percent in that span.

Since 2000, a few years before Gardner moved to North City, the county’s population nearly doubled.  

Because of that growth, congestion in the historic district and on surrounding roads is heavier than ever. During peak traffic hours–morning and evening–roads are at D and F levels of service, meaning they’re non-functional, at their limit, and have been that way for some time.

Tourism and population growth aren’t the only culprits in the mobility issue. In some ways, St. Augustine was predestined for these problems simply by the way it was designed. Edwards, a member of the city’s mobility task force, said three major roadways lead straight through the center of town: State Road 207, State Road 16, and U.S. 1. And the city’s age doesn’t help.

Aside from congestion and elongated trip times, mobility issues cause other problems for the city. Edwards said cars sitting, idling in traffic emit fossil fuels and with added cars, pedestrians are put at higher risk for injury.

Neighborhoods, not just main roads, are affected by tourism and traffic issues as well. Visitors deviate through neighborhoods when main roads are backed up, which raises the volume of cars within those streets that aren’t designed to handle that kind of traffic.

“Many of our neighborhoods at peak hours experience incredible problems with visitors parking blocking their driveways, parking in their yards, it can be very difficult to get around or even to and from your house,” Edwards said. “So if you live on the island and you want to go downtown to shop, that’s a really difficult thing to do by car because of the tremendous traffic volumes.”

How tourism factors into the equation

Much of the growth of tourism in St. Augustine isn’t coincidental. It’s the job of the Visitor’s Convention Bureau to create awareness about St. Augustine as a vacation destination. And that’s what they’ve done, landing St. Augustine spots on lists in magazines like Travel and Leisure and the Conde Nast Traveler.

One somewhat coincidental event was the Mumford and Sons’ stop in St. Augustine on their Gentlemen of the Road Tour in August 2015 where a new segment of the population was introduced to St. Augustine. Before the tour stopped in St. Augustine, 18 to 34 year olds made up 10 to 12 percent of the city’s tourists. Since then, that percentage has doubled to 24 percent.

“[Tour attendees] came and they saw and said ‘Wow, it’s walkable, it’s affordable, it’s got the things that I like to do,’ so they started coming back,” said Richard Goldman, CEO of the Saint Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitor’s Convention Bureau.

While the influx of tourists has been beneficial to the local economy–they spent $1.1 billion in St. Augustine last year–some residents in the area maintain tourism isn’t all good for their area.

I think the popularity of the city is choking it,” Gardner said.

Edwards, as well as Franklin, cites tourism as the root of St. Augustine’s mobility problem, which is the cause for unhappiness among residents.

“Tourism is good for our economy, it’s good for our city, it’s good for our residents,” Edwards said. “But because of the manner in which our tourists arrive, and see the city in many cases, it’s bad for mobility and that has an adverse affect on our residents.”

So while tourism isn’t all good for residents, it isn’t all bad either.

“We’re proud that people do want to visit our city,” Gardner said. “We don’t like the inconvenience, then nobody does. We have to get a handle on it, we have to do less advertising for tourism and more management of tourism.”

But as Goldman said, without tourism, and inevitably the mobility issues that come along with it, St. Augustine wouldn’t be nearly as desirable to live in. Reducing tourism could mean the end of popular local businesses that are largely fueled by tourism dollars. It would also cause a decline in property values, which Goldman said “ought to be important to residents.”

“You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, it’s what is paying everybody’s salary and making it inexpensive to live here,” Goldman said. “We have the best lifestyle of every county in Florida and we have one of the lowest tax rates. That’s happening because someone else is paying for that lifestyle, and that’s our visitors.”

Part of the reason why mobility is so important to residents is because it’s an issue that mostly falls on them, rather than the tourists who are the root cause of the issue.

“I don’t think that the visitor that comes here and is stuck in traffic is having a bad time,” Franklin said. “I think they’re on the bayfront and they’ve got a pretty view, but I think it becomes maddening for the locals who live here day in and day out and they have to deal with it.”

Vilano Beach resident Anthony Fournier took matters into his own hands by opening up the St. Augustine WAXI, which takes passengers to and from waterfront restaurants in Vilano Beach and Anastasia Island, as well the Vilano Beach Pier and the St. Augustine Municipal Marina. Fournier said his water taxi helps people avoid traffic and get a better view of the city.

Solving the issue

Both city officials and members from the community are doing their part to alleviate mobility issues and make the city easier for all to get around.

Franklin was appointed to his post in February to lead the mobility effort, work with consultants from Littlejohn and hear from the community about what can be done to alleviate their problems.

Gardner’s time as mayor helped acquaint him with the city’s mobility issues. For his term, he was elected on the issue of building a parking garage.  

“I think we’re a lot closer than we ever have been,” Gardner said. “I think our approach to mobility is better than it ever has been.”

Part of that approach is the creation of a strategic plan for mobility, which includes both shorter term–fixing neighborhood issues–and longer term projects which consist of fixing main corridors. One project in the piloting phase now is to shuttle visitors in from external parking lots outside of the historic district, which cuts down on cars in the downtown area.

The city’s also done studies on the feasibility of a 30-passenger transit circulator: one bus looping through the city, another looping through St. Augustine Beach and two buses connecting the two areas. Studies show that would be feasible for the city.

To combat traffic caused by the Bridge of Lions, a dynamic messaging system that connects the State Road 312 Bridge with the Bridge of Lions openings to divert traffic over the SR 312 bridge, rather than queuing at the foot of the drawbridge on Anastasia Island.

As for Gardner, as well as those in Vilano Beach, help is on the way. Backups are commonplace on May Street leading from the Vilano Bridge as well as San Marco Avenue, which runs perpendicular to it. This fall, construction on a new configuration at the intersection of May Street and San Marco Avenue will begin, adding a traffic loop.

The road ahead may be difficult–Franklin said a major struggle will be garnering public support, since many changes proposed could change the culture of the city. But unlike the Spanish settlers, city officials’ mobility plan will plan for future growth.

“Solving this issue is not like a vaccine that suddenly eliminates something like polio,” Edwards said. “It’s a constant, never-ending fight. Progress is made by inches and it’s something that has to exist in perpetuity.”

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