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Date of Issue: March 23, 2006

Spring break, Easter bonus for Island means heavy traffic

Happy campers
Adults, students and kids have been packing the Manatee Public Beach in Holmes Beach the past few weeks, much to the delight of area businesses. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin

It doesn't take much for Islanders to figure that the Island is packed with visitors. All one has to do is take the car for a ride along Gulf Drive any afternoon to figure this one out, or try to find a parking spot at Manatee Public Beach any time after 10 a.m.

And many of the visitors seem to be families on spring break.

Florida universities took their spring break last week, while secondary schools in Manatee and Sarasota counties are on break this week and next week.

While most spring breakers head for the night life of Panama City Beach or Daytona Beach, many families look for the peace and quiet of Anna Maria Island during the break, said Susan Estler of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

From figures supplied by the Manatee County Area Transit on daily usage of the Island trolley, it would seem the Island is getting a bonus from three separate weeks of spring break, not to mention the added bonus that Easter isn't until mid-April.

In fact, the Island is so full of people that MCAT recorded the highest number of daily passenger usage on the Island trolley in its four-year history March 11 when 2,787 riders boarded the free service. On Sunday, March 12, the trolley had 1,999 riders, while the Landside-Beach Shuttle brought 188 passengers, also a record. The three-day total of Island trolley passengers for March 10-12 was 6,808, another record.

If that wasn't enough people, the trolley set another a mid-week record for passengers on Thursday, March 16, with 2,529 riders.

George Mendez of MCAT said he was a "little concerned" that the trolley system was being overloaded, but having the trolley certainly keeps a lot more cars off Island roads.

You couldn't tell that by all the traffic on the Island, said Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine.

"This is the heaviest traffic I've seen," he said, and he's been a law enforcement officer in Holmes Beach for nearly 20 years.

"Every year, we way this is the busiest, but this is, in my opinion," he added. Romine also noted that the Island is in its traditional "spring break" period for the next two weeks, but with Easter not until mid-April, Island streets are likely to stay crowded for another month.

"People are calling us every day asking us what we can do. There are just too many cars for our roads to handle," he said.

Romine's best advice to Islanders and winter residents: "Leave early and if you don't have to drive, stay home."

He also advised motorists to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists, drive carefully and especially have patience.

"Everyone just has to coexist until this slacks off," he said.

Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale agreed that traffic is extremely heavy this year, but noted that because of repairs along Cortez Road just east of the Cortez Bridge, the road is often just a single lane.

This backs up traffic leaving the Island and traffic coming onto the Island, he said, observing that on some occasions when just a single lane on Cortez Road is available, he's seen traffic back up on Gulf Drive north to Holmes Beach for nearly a mile.

But the high traffic volume is good news for Island accommodation owners.

Marge Moran at the Club Bamboo Resort in Bradenton Beach said her resort is booked solid for the next two weeks, and she's had a lot of "walk-in" traffic the past few weekends.

"We're doing great, even with the pipes still on the beach. We're getting the families on spring break coming the next two weeks. In fact, we're full up the whole month."

Likewise said Tom Buehler of Haley's Motel in Holmes Beach.

"We're packed," Buehler said. "We've got nothing available until next month. I wish we had a few more units," he added with a laugh.

As at the Club Bamboo, Buehler said he's getting families coming on spring vacation, people looking for the peace and quiet of Anna Maria Island.

Not everyone, however, is enjoying the fruits of all the traffic and visitors.

Tjet Martin at the Linger Longer guest house in Bradenton Beach said she had some vacancies the past few weeks, although her units are now completely booked from next week through mid-April.

While the traffic might be a concern to Island residents, the people are good for the entire Island, she concluded.

Exactly, added Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mary Ann Brockman.

"The Island appears full and that's great for all the businesses. I drove down Gulf Drive the other day and saw a lot of 'no vacancy' signs. And I haven't had any complaints from members that business is slow."

With Easter coming late in the season this year, Brockman said she's hopeful the boom will last until the end of April.

That means Islanders can expect another six weeks of what may turn out to be the best winter season in the past five years since 9/11.

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