Use care in changing traffic rules

By Steve Estes

Monroe County will soon take up the issue of how to measure traffic level of service here in the coming years. How to get cars through and around the Florida Keys has been  an issue for several years. At one point, traffic level of service became such an issue on Big Pine Key that the state declared a building moratorium for nearly eight years. No one could build a new house. Commercial entities could only rebuild on an existing foot print.

When the state came along and fixed the US 1/Key Deer Blvd. interchange, traffic started moving again enough to lift the moratorium. When the widening project was completed, traffic began to flow a little more smoothly.

But over the years, traffic concurrency issues have made any further development a little dicey in several other locations in the Keys.

So county staff is seeking ways to end the problem for good.

We’re not sure, however, that the preferred method at this time is the right move to make.

Under the leadership of a a strongly deregulation oriented Governor, the state has lifted the mandatory need for smooth traffic flow as a detriment to new commercial development.

Our planners don’t want to go that far, realizing that severe traffic bottlenecks only get in the way of a trouble-free evacuation in the face of a major hurricane.

But their recommended move might make for more commercial expansion in the Keys than any of us really want.

What is going to be proposed in the next couple of months is that the county change the way it measures vehicular level of service.

Right now, US 1 is divided into travel segments. Each of those segments must attain the minimum standard of level of service or that segment gets loaded with some more restrictive development rules. If the LOS is bad enough, it would trigger another moratorium on even a single new home.

And that is not acceptable to our leadership. Planners have a stated goal that traffic concurrency should never be a detriment to someone building a home here as long as the building allocations hold out.

So the new proposal is to change the measurement from a segment-based one to an overall-length one.

Instead of each segment being required to reach a LOS D for development to continue, the overall LOS for the Keys from mile marker 108 to mile marker three, which marks the end of unincorporated county jurisdiction, must annually be measured  at LOS C.

To reach LOS C, the average travel speed from one end of the Keys to the other must be greater than 45 miles per hour.

How much better than 45 miles per hour the traffic flows equates to how many additional vehicular trips can be placed on the highway before the level deteriorates to what we see daily in Miami-Dade or Broward County.

There are already some touchy areas for vehicular traffic flow, such as the east end of Rockland Key, Big Pine, Lower Sugarloaf and Matecumbe Key.

The plan says that the county should consider individual segment traffic levels prior to the approval of any major developments in those segments, but this new proposal is supposed to eradicate the possibility that a few new homes would trigger a building moratorium.

That’s the good part of this proposal.

The problems come in when the elected leadership changes and we maybe get three extremely pro-development county commissioners in the seats again and commercial development takes a front seat to quality-of-life again.

Under this proposal, we can get large commercial centers, such as is being planned on Rockland Key right now, and barely affect overall LOS, while making local traffic in those places a nightmare for residents.

There aren’t enough trips left in the Rockland Key segment to allow that commercial mall to be built without some significant contributions from the developer toward fixing the potential traffic snarls under the current measuring methodology.

But with the new proposal, the commission could approve that commercial mall without any significant contribution from the developer because overall LOS would only take a minor hit.

The effect on local traffic, however, would be horrendous.

We in no way advocate doing away with LOS standards, but moving away from the segment-based measurement seems to us to make proper transportation planning something to be done after the damage is done and not before.

And all of this comes against a backdrop of state/county meetings to address traffic flow issues. Some of the suggestions in those discussions are to upgrade the county’s feeder roads, establish intra-island arterials, and widen more bridge segments to ensure smoother traffic flow.

It would seem to us that the latter suggestions need to be the first line of defense. Once we find out how well those worked, let’s talk about changing the measurement methodology.

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