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Since its construction in 1928 linking Tampa and Miami along Florida's southwest coast and across the Everglades, the Tamiami Trail (officially US 41) has created a rich and unique history by connecting people, places and economic opportunities. The road links port cities with markets, provides access to some of America's most beautiful beaches, homes and resort destinations, and has enabled commerce to thrive in cities like Bradenton, Sarasota, Venice and Fort Myers along Florida's Gulf Coast. However, that success waned in recent decades with widening and re-alignment to move traffic. Even more significantly, the construction of I-75 in the mid-1980s some 10 miles to the east redirected economic growth from the traditional downtowns and historic Tamiami Trail corridor to the interchanges and developments lining the interstate. picture of pedestrian crossing busy US 41

In Manatee and Sarasota Counties south of Tampa Bay, a nearly 60-mile stretch of Tamiami Trail/US 41 is now undergoing a thoughtful transformation seeking to restore the corridor to prominence as an economic, cultural and community focal point. Through joint efforts led by the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), local governments, the airport authority, partnerships with higher education institutions, non-profit and advocacy groups, progress is occurring in substantive and measurable ways to remake the Tamiami Trail as a multimodal corridor and catalyst for economic opportunity.

While well-planned, market-based redevelopment initiatives and good urban design are important, transportation is the central unifying element in corridor revitalization. Responding to economic, social and demographic changes to keep cities vital requires changing the mindset for how transportation functions and serves the region and community.

Creating the framework for that transformation has taken time. But over the last 10 years, key actions and agreements have set the stage for market forces and local initiatives to take the Tamiami Trail to its new status as the region's signature boulevard. A foundation was laid with the Trail's designation as a scenic highway, which through the MPO's leadership, raised the visibility of corridor revitalization efforts.  It has culminated to date with the MPO's formal designation of the Tamiami Trail as a Multimodal Emphasis Corridor in 2010 and a subsequent program to fund projects supporting that designation, including a series of modern roundabouts just north of downtown Sarasota. As consultant to the MPO, Manatee County, New College of Florida, and the cities of Bradenton, Palmetto, Sarasota and North Port, Renaissance Planning Group helped to advance those efforts on multiple fronts over the last 13 years by defining catalyst actions and supporting the strategic decision-making of corridor partners through various short- and long-range plans.

There are five important lessons from efforts to transform the Tamiami Trail:

  1. Begin and maintain a focused dialogue - A regional planning forum, in this case the MPO, provides an excellent means to convene stakeholders and draw their attention to corridor redevelopment through analysis, formal plans and the continuing planning process that allocates state and federal transportation funds.
  2. Cultivate champions - Put elected officials, institutional and business leaders on steering committees and task forces to give them ownership of process and outcomes, and show early successes to sustain them.
  3. Change the mindset - examine the corridor in broad context of the region and adjacent neighborhoods to understand its unique and distinctive value to economic development, growth and community cohesion as a place rather than pass-through road. This also means redefining the purpose of transportation in the corridor from a focus on mobility to accessibility.
  4. Break the corridor into manageable segments or districts - A long corridor like US 41 can be overwhelmingly daunting. Break it down into focused pieces that relate to strategic objectives and the distinctive character of different places along the corridor.
  5. Leverage partnerships - Use funding and commitment of public agencies at all levels to achieve desired outcomes and engage the state DOT early as a partner in finding solutions. Form coalitions and align policies to match dollars with actions by public and private actors. Ultimately, very little changes in transportation by acting alone.

History and Decline of the Trail

The four- and six-lane arterial road links downtowns and neighborhoods filled with history and classic Florida tourism. The Ringling family built a circus empire with its winter home in Sarasota and Venice, and developed much of the area. John Ringling endowed Sarasota's internationally renowned Ringling Museum of Fine Arts, and his adjacent palatial residence on Sarasota Bay, Ca' d'Zan, is the most famous of numerous other historic homes from the Roaring '20s. The City of Venice, planned by famed architect and planner John Nolen, is one of Florida's most walkable cities and a harbinger of America's increasingly aging population, with its 21,000 residents averaging age 68. Bradenton and Palmetto, long centers of the agricultural and marine industry, continue to thrive as riverfront cities using redevelopment to reinvent themselves.

Once a vibrant corridor lined with destination restaurants, tourist attractions, elegant hotels and new motels for the affluent post-war auto age, the corridor gradually fell into decline with the construction of I-75. The new interstate improved regional access, shifting the focus of the regional economy and enabling growth of residential and commercial developments in the eastern parts of Manatee and Sarasota Counties, and hastening the Trail's decline. Between the energy of I-75 and the continuing draw of the Gulf beaches, the Tamiami Trail became an economic afterthought; pass-through territory with relics of a bygone era between downtowns struggling to find their true identity.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the "North Trail" in the City of Sarasota became notorious for prostitution, drugs and rising violent crime. In Bradenton, West 14th Street (US 41 Business) earned a similar reputation as a rough neighborhood, while the Florida DOT widened the primary US 41 "bypass" to route traffic away from downtown Bradenton, where it became a wasteland of fast food restaurants, car dealerships and payday advance businesses. Each city made some efforts to stem the tide, but the corridor proved resistant to substantive change and the reputation persisted.

bicyclists riding on narrow sidewalk adjacent to US 41

Despite the new interstate, efforts continued to improve traffic speed and reduce delay on US 41. The downtowns continued to experience congestion, and intersection "improvements" made it increasingly hazardous for pedestrians to cross. Bicyclists mostly kept to sidewalks. Dealing with rapid growth in the region, moving traffic remained the primary objective through the 1980s and '90s. A rash of pedestrian crashes and fatalities in the early 2000s prompted FDOT to conduct safety studies that added some protections as accoutrements, but did not fundamentally change the situation.

Refocusing on Connectivity, Safety and Access for All Users

By 2000, it became evident that changes in the corridor would require dramatic intervention. Frustrated by the region's declining "gateway," the area's four colleges and universities, residents, advocacy groups and organizations like the airport authority and others prodded the Florida Department of Transportation and local governments to undertake more concerted efforts to improve the Trail. The path would not be easy. Aligning government, institutions, the private sector and residents would prove formidable. But through the MPO planning process - partnered closely with multiple strategic actions and long-term initiatives of area local governments - the Tamiami Trail corridor transformation has enjoyed steady, measurable success. It is on the path to becoming a corridor that fully connects people, places and opportunity. Our next post will explore the outcomes from several of those catalyst plans and projects that helped guide that evolution.

–Whit Blanton, FAICP, Cities That Work Blog

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