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Traffic snarls at the intersection of Lee Boulevard and Gunnery Road North on Wednesday in Lehigh Acres.
Traffic snarls at the intersection of Lee Boulevard and Gunnery Road North on Wednesday in Lehigh Acres. / Sarah Coward/news-press.com

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The number of vehicles on Lee County roads increased in 2012 compared to the previous year, continuing an upward trend that some say is an indicator the local economy is recovering.

Lehigh Acres shined the most, with the Daniels Parkway-Gunnery Road connection reporting record numbers of motorized travel. Daniels Parkway west of Interstate 75 bested the previous 2007 record of 59,300 with 60,900 vehicles a day in 2012, according to the Lee County Department of Transportation. Cape Coral is one of the few areas in Lee where the traffic growth is sluggish.

“Overall, the average traffic volumes are up a little bit but not a whole lot,” said Steve Jansen with Lee DOT. “They’re beginning to go up some, but there’s still a ways to go before we get to the peak we were at five or six years ago.”

Traffic count surveys are conducted annually and typically include highways and large corridors that post the highest traffic counts. Lee DOT used 67 stations around the county to gather data for the 2012 report, which does not include an analysis of road construction projects or their impacts on travel patterns. The report focuses on individual stations and not on total countywide volume.

Record numbers in Lehigh are due mostly to a rebounding housing market that was hit hard by foreclosures, said Edd Weiner, president of Lehigh Acres Community Planning Panel Inc.

“We’re showing a large growth pattern,” Weiner said. “We have a lot of foreclosed homes that are being purchased, and a lot of the unfinished homes have been purchased and finished.”

Lehigh has a tremendous amount of residential development but relatively little commerce. That forces residents to travel outside their neighborhood when buying groceries, clothing or other items.

Doug Wilcox, owner-operator at Aaron Airport Transportation Inc., said the opening of JetBlue Park along Daniels east of Interstate 75 and north of the roadway has added thousands of vehicles per day.

“You can’t start a ball game between 1 and 3 o’clock, putting 7,000 vehicles on the road during rush hour,” Wilcox said. “It’s dumping thousands of cars onto Daniels Parkway in rush hours and that coincides with peak flight traffic.”

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Wilcox owns a fleet of 10 cars and stays off roads during day hours as much as possible. But how about conditions in his own neighborhood?

“Yes, it is better,” Wilcox said. “But let’s face it: I don’t go anywhere between 7 and 8:30 in the morning. I don’t go anywhere between 4 o’clock and 6. I can’t think of anything that would compel me to get on the roads at that time of day.”

Taxi companies exist in a boom-or-bust capacity in Southwest Florida — where tourism season traffic can be so thick that getting anyone to any single location in the county can be difficult.

Wilcox said too much traffic could lead to economic instability because “if you’re going on vacation are you going somewhere to sit in traffic? If you’re going from the airport to the Pink Shell Resort at the north end of Fort Myers Beach — you can get to Summerlin in 20 minutes if the lights are all green, 30 minutes if they’re all red. The next mile-and-a-half is another hour.”

Some of the busiest roadways in the county are still well behind pre-recession volumes, however. Cape Coral is home to some of the busiest roads in the county, but they’re still behind housing-boom numbers and, in many cases, numbers are still falling.

Cape Coral Parkway traffic numbers decreased from 2011 to 2012, posting 40,800 and 40,100 daily west of Palm Tree Boulevard, respectively. That’s well behind the parkway’s 2005 heights of 54,200 vehicles per day.

Foreclosures in recent years were as high in Cape Coral as any municipality in the nation, and the city is still recovering from those huge losses. And like Lehigh Acres, much of Cape Coral is residential, with many residents commuting to Fort Myers or Naples daily. But unlike Lehigh Acres, Cape Coral isn’t posting record traffic numbers, not yet anyway.

Connie Barron, public information director for the city, said Cape Coral’s housing market is starting to rebound, though. And with residential growth comes an increase in traffic volume.

Cape Coral Parkway traffic counts hit a low in 2009 with 31,800 vehicles per day west of Palm Tree Boulevard.

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“That makes sense to me,” Barron said of Cape traffic patterns. “(2006-07) was the height of the building boom. Then when you had the foreclosures we were at the pinnacle of that.”

The housing crash set Cape Coral traffic numbers back about a decade. Traffic volume has increased by about one-third since 2009, according to the DOT report.

“We’ve been seeing an increase in single-family home permits,” Barron said. “Last month we had the most single-family permits since 2006, and we’re expecting that to continue.”

Areas of south Lee County, where growth was rampant six years ago, posted sluggish traffic counts for 2012. Ben Hill Griffin Parkway connects Corkscrew Road to Alico Road west of Interstate 75 and is the gateway to FGCU, huge golf course communities and tremendous retail operations such as Miromar Outlets and Gulf Coast Town Center.

However, traffic volume peaked there in 2007 with 26,200 vehicles per day and then slowly trickled to 16,200 in 2012. Unlike many other large, modern connector roads in Lee County, Ben Hill Griffin dropped each year between 2007 and 2012.

Traffic volumes on U.S. 41 north of Brantley Road have ebbed and flowed from the peak of 62,400 in 2006 down to 50,400 in 2008, then up to 53,800 in 2010 and down, again, to 50,700 in 2012.

Connect with this reporter: ChadGillisNP on twitter.

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