Traffic concerns worsen in Keys

By Steve Estes

The newest travel time study for the Florida Keys is out, and this year’s report shows another year in a declining trend for travel speeds across the island chain.

Because of the single-road access nature of the Keys, the state has determined that average speeds on the island must meet or exceed 45 miles per hour for the length of the island chain to continue to allow residential development.

That Level of Service (LOS) is the yardstick used by state and county planners to determine in what areas further residential growth may occur and how much.

Should the entire county fall below the 45-mile-per-hour standard, the state would have the option to cut off building permits.

But that isn’t in danger of happening from this year’s report as the median speed from Key West to Key Largo was reported at 47 miles per hour, leaving a reserve traffic capacity of a little more than 92,000 trips per day.

But there are segments along the stretch of Overseas Highway that are approaching the lower limits of LOS, most of those in the Lower Keys where two-lane roads are the norm leading into Key West.

According to Monroe County Traffic Consultant Raj Shanmugam, 18 of the 24 segments of US 1 saw a drop in overall speed this year compared to last, while six got better.

In the Lower Keys, Shanmugam reports that the entire area from mile marker nine at Big Coppitt Key to mile marker 20.5 at Upper Sugarloaf Key is in an area of concern. Also in the Lower Keys, Big Pine Key, which has been an area of concern for several years, is still in that designation.

None of the areas are yet in an area where development will be affected, but Shanmugam suggests that traffic impacts be considered whenever new development or significant redevelopment is considered in those areas.

LOS issues forced a development moratorium on Big Pine Key for nearly eight years from the late 1990s to mid-2000s. The project that rebuilt the Key Deer Blvd./US 1 interchange resulted in that moratorium being lifted.

Big Pine has the slowest average speed of all the Lower Keys islands, but that is attributed to the island’s 35-mile-per-hour nighttime speed limit due to the endangered Key Deer and the traffic light, even though the light is seasonally adjusted, often manually, during peak tourist events in Key West.

The island with the highest average speed is Boca Chica where most of the traffic is to and from the military base at NAS Key West.

According to Shanmugam, there are 11 segments this year that qualify as areas of concern, a jump of four over last year.

US 1 is maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation and all of the traffic enhancement projects are conducted by that agency.

Shanmugam says that road widening is a typical capacity improvement  remedy, but that is problematic in the Keys with the limited road paving allowed due to environmental constraints and private property encroachment issues.

“Other, less intrusive remedies could be explored and evaluated to improve the traffic flow and capacity of US 1,” he reported.

Those include:

  • Identifying strategic locations to add turn lanes
  • Conducting speed studies on select segments of US 1 to determine if the posted speed limits and necessary and correct for the area
  • Consolidate driveways and access points to minimize friction
  • Enhance signal timing at existing lights to improve traffic flow (that was done at Big Pine to give a much larger share of green to through traffic to Key West)
  • Allow no new signals along US 1 (locals residents are working now to have the recently installed light at Crane Blvd. on Sugarloaf Key at the school removed)
  • Improving conditions along county feeder roads to alleviate the use of US 1 as the primary local street (this was suggested 10 years ago with the paving of Lytton’s Way on Big Pine and vehemently opposed by the island’s northwest communities)

Improvements to county roads would be a cost borne solely by the county taxpayers and one that has taken a back seat in the recent years of tight budgets. Officials estimate it will take more than $20 million to make a good dent in the backlog of road projects that should be done on county-maintained roads.

Hurley suggests that the county could seek a change in the LOS mandate from a C level to a D level, or do away with the LOS for traffic flow altogether.

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