County seeks new traffic solutions

By Steve Estes

Monroe County’s elected leadership will listen Wednesday as the Florida Department of Transportation outlines its work program for the next five years in the island chain.

In the Lower Keys, the state DOT plans to spend money on improving highway drainage through the business district along US 1 on Summerland Key late next year or early 2014 to the tune of $1.4 million.

That project is supposed to eliminate standing water after rains, reconfigure the bike path and address some ingress/egress issues.

What it will also do is eliminate some parking depth for some of the businesses, an issue that hasn’t as yet been fully addressed by FDOT officials.

The state will spend more than $300,000 repaving US 1 from Shark Key to Sugarloaf in the coming fiscal year and just over $600,000 repaving the intersection of Long Beach and US 1.

The state expects to refurbish the bridge at Sunshine Key to the tune of $2.6 million next fiscal year, as well as spend about $1.3 million to connect the Overseas Heritage Trail over Spanish Harber Bridge, a project that calls for reconnecting the old historic bridge to allow for bike and pedestrian traffic.

Another bike path project is expected to chew up $900,000 for the stretch across Lower Sugarloaf Key.

Further down the road, the state has set aside more than $300,000 for landscaping projects along US 1 through Big Pine Key.

But when the state is done telling the Board of County Commissioners the great things it plans for the county in the next five years, the BOCC will have a chance to tell FDOT some of the things it believes must happen in the next five to 10 years to address deteriorating levels of service for vehicular traffic on US 1.

The state mandates an LOS of C for US 1. The county sets that by segments with any segment falling below the threshold in danger of falling into a building moratorium such as the one sustained on Big Pine Key for eight years.

“What I don’t ever want to see here again is a residential building moratorium,” said county Growth Management Director Christine Hurley.

So her staff has come up with some options for the BOCC to consider to help enhance the level of service on US 1.

Some of those requests will involve active participation from FDOT, and some will take action from the BOCC independent of the state agency.

The top option staff has is to enhance county-owned roads that might help enhance the level of service on US.

Those suggestions include the joining of some county roads that are currently interrupted, or paving some through roads that aren’t currently paved.

Hurley quickly assuages the fears of some local residents and announces that Lytton’s Way west of Key Deer Blvd. is not one of the possibilities for that island, although doesn’t rule out other routes across Big Pine that would help keep local traffic off the highway and enhance LOS.

Staff also suggests that it continue to work with FDOT to enhance signal timing along the route to ease traffic flow in areas where traffic lights exist.

Such a move was recently made on Upper Sugarloaf Key when FDOT changed the traffic light at Crane Blvd. from constant use to flashing yellow outside of school hours.

Local residents fought for that light for several years because of the danger to school busses trying to turn left into traffic off Crane or off US 1 onto Crane. When the state put the light in it was supposed to be in use only during school days and hours, but wound up being a full-time light and was blamed for some serious crashes at the intersection.

Staff also suggests that county officials prioritize LOS issues and lobby FDOT to include fixes for those issues in its yearly work plans. Some of those fixes would be the establishment of turn lanes at high-traffic commercial districts and possibly widening some bridges to handle more than two lanes of traffic where bottlenecks are created regularly.

Staff says that discouraging the establishment of any more signalized intersections along US 1 would help with traffic flow and also that the county adopt a policy of requiring developers to fund LOS improvements along the highway when their projects will degrade the level of service in any area.

A quick fix to the deteriorating LOS along US 1 and the problems that accompany such would be for the BOCC to eliminate the by-segment LOS conditions in the comprehensive plan and instead adopt a county-wide LOS.

“If we did that, the highway would suddenly be able to handle an additional 9,000 trips without triggering development issues,” said Hurley. “The real downside to that, however, is that areas where traffic is already bad would become worse.”

Currently the county’s policies force major developments to address traffic issues in specific areas or not be able to build.

“If we eliminated the segment LOS policy, it would be harder for staff to refuse major development in sensitive areas because it would have little effect on overall level of service,” she said.

She says she believes the best way to attack the problem right now is to explore those areas where enhancement of county roads can be used to entice local traffic off the highway, leaving US 1 more to visitors who are trying to make quick passage from one area to another.

The commission isn’t expected to make any decisions on a policy Wednesday, “but it’s an issue we must address soon,” said Hurley.

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