St. Augustine throws big money at solving its traffic (mobility) issues. But what can really be done with a configuration that was created in the 16th century?

It was close to 1900, and one of the main modes of transportation throughout the United States was a horse-drawn carriage. Yet, people in St. Augustine were already disagreeing on how to handle traffic.

The debate of the day focused on where to place a new bridge connecting the city to the island across the Matanzas River.

Some favored connecting it near the Plaza de la Constitucion, said historian Thomas Graham. Others disagreed, some saying that a bridge farther south would protect recreational sailing and city views, according to Graham's book, "Mr. Flagler's St. Augustine."

“The fear was they didn’t want to let traffic there at the Plaza," Graham said.

But the Plaza group prevailed. Later, the Bridge of Lions replaced that wooden bridge in a similar location.

Today, the Bridge of Lions is a key source of congestion in the city, but bridge placement isn't the only facet of the city's history that contributes to today's traffic headaches.

Now the city is in the midst of a major, and costly, effort to try and untangle traffic issues that have been years in the making.

 

Two bridges, lots of vehicles

A copy of an advertisement from 1927, courtesy of the St. Augustine Historical Society, touts the opening of Ocean Shore Boulevard and calls it "the most important link in the best route from Jacksonville to any point in Central or South Florida."

The route, which became State Road A1A, connected sites such as St. Augustine and Davis Shores to Ormond and Daytona Beach.

The Bridge of Lions and a bridge to Vilano Beach were built about the same time, said Charles Tingley, senior research librarian at the St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library. They're both part of S.R. A1A.

Both of those bridges have caused debate at different points in time.

The Vilano Beach bridge was replaced in the 1990s. Some argued then that traffic should be routed farther north than it is now to make connecting with Interstate 95 easier, said Vivian Browning, a Vilano Beach advocate. But that didn't happen.

Traffic from the bridge leads to the May Street and San Marco Avenue intersection — which the Florida Department of Transportation is now rebuilding because of congestion issues.

The Bridge of Lions opened in 1927. By the 2000s, it needed work and underwent major repairs by the FDOT.

Groups in the city debated whether to replace the bridge with something taller to allow more room for vessels to pass beneath, but the town and the FDOT went with preservation, according to the book, "Highway A1A: Florida at the Edge" by Herb Hiller. 

Today, the bridge is one of the biggest traffic problems for Reuben Franklin Jr., he said.

Franklin is the city's mobility program manager, and his job is to make the city easier to travel for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. When the drawbridge opens to allow boat traffic to pass through, traffic stacks up.

A taller bridge might have allowed more vessel traffic to pass underneath without using the drawbridge, he said, thus alleviating the regular traffic backups.

"With the city of St. Augustine, you have to weigh the values of our historic preservation, the character of the city," he said. "I mean, what would the city look like without the Bridge of Lions being a drawbridge?"

 

The Town Plan

Of course, no one had cars in mind at the city's founding. Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his crews landed in 1565 and established the town, and it would be more than 300 years before cars rumbled into St. Augustine.

What was at the top of the minds of Aviles and his crews were defense, said historian Susan Parker.

“So it wasn’t necessarily laid out to make access easy," she said.

The part south of the Plaza was designed earlier than the parts north of the Plaza, reflected in narrower streets on the south side, Tingley said. Officials may have wanted wider streets on the north to have room for two carts to pass each other, he said.

The city's history is a big part of its tourism draw, and the town's historic district is a national landmark.

"Today the district retains the distinctive plan typical of a 16th century Spanish Colonial walled town," according to the National Park Service.

With that in mind, the city has to make concessions when it comes to traffic flow for the sake of historic preservation.

Widening a road, for instance, is not possible in some areas.

"You would pretty much destroy the look of the town if you wanted to make it accommodate vehicles," Parker said.

 

The arteries

Despite its centuries-old design and the city's focus on historic preservation, thousands of cars flow through the city daily.

In 2017, the average daily traffic count for State Road A1A just north of the Bridge of Lions downtown was 8,500 northbound vehicles and 9,000 southbound, according to FDOT.

Before it was a tourist destination, St. Augustine was a place where the sick came to recover, Tingley said. In the mid 1800s, "travel for travel's sake" became more common in the country.

Waterways and railroads brought visitors, and then came the automobiles.

"By the 1920s, the demands of automobiles were changing St. Augustine," according to Parker's writing in the city's Historic Preservation Master Plan. "In 1917 the city became a link to the Dixie Highway, a major north-south route from Michigan to Miami. The Old Spanish Trail (highway) ran east-west, stretching to San Diego, California, from the Zero Mile Marker adjacent to Castillo de San Marcos."

Major highways followed, such as U.S. 1.

Traffic that uses U.S. 1 now used to be funneled along San Marco Avenue, according to a 1955 article from The Record. The article said that U.S. 1 was siphoning traffic from San Marco Avenue, and shop owners were concerned about losing business.

Reporters conducted an hour-long traffic count during the non-peak season and found 115 cars heading south on U.S. 1, and 73 cars heading north on U.S. 1.

U.S.1 became a four-lane road. One article in The Record from 1955 said, "a four-lane free highway along the tourist-popular East Coast should attract its share of tourist travel during Florida's great future."

Then came Interstate 95. It was the 1960s when the State Road Department "took down the barriers" on I-95 at the northern and southern ends in St. Johns County, an article in The Record reported.

Another article before I-95's opening said that people urged the community to "start planning and preparing now a campaign to convince tourists that they should leave Interstate 95 and drive the few miles into St. Augustine."

In recent years, commissioners have raised the question of whether St. Johns County tourism officials should back off on advertising St. Augustine, something the tourism industry has fought against.

 

Paying for growing population

From 2010 to April of 2018, St. Johns County's population grew from 190,000 to 238,742, according to estimates from the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The traffic isn't just coming from long-distance visitors, but officials believe a large chunk are coming from Jacksonville or other parts of St. Johns County.

Finding a way to deal with the huge influx of traffic in a city that wasn't designed for it has been costly.

The city of St. Augustine expected to have spent more than $1.6 million through its mobility division from fiscal year 2016 through October, according to city budget director Meredith Breidenstein. That includes things like the the city's shuttle program and work on a comprehensive mobility plan, but traffic projects are in other parts of the budget as well.

Franklin's current efforts include implementing a mobile-pay parking system and, soon, getting public feedback on possible redesigns of key streets such as King Street. Those small changes should provide small improvements.

Ultimately, the desire to solve the city's mobility puzzle will have to be weighed against what people in the city want, and the efforts are also limited by the city's history.

“There's a clash there," Franklin said, "with technological advances in a historic community."