The Key West Mystique

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Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

Traffic in the Keys

Traffic in the Keys | Decades in the making, welcome to gridlock

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

11/20/2023

And, just like that, traffic in and around the Triangle came to a halt on Nov. 14. Why? Well, we’re beautifying the entrance to the island, which will be nice to look at while sitting in the twice-a-day, locals-special rush hour that brings traffic to gridlock from, say, 7:30-9:30 a.m. and again from around 3:30-6:30 p.m.

Add in a special event like the boat races or a GFS delivery truck and a couple of school buses to the traffic in the Keys and you’ll be glad to have all that beautification to admire.

God bless anyone this week who forgot traffic was reduced to one lane into and off the island. Sure hope they hit the bathroom before heading out, because there’d be precious few openings to pry one’s way into town or up the Keys.

Hey, I’m all for beautification. Indeed, the state has planted so many native trees, palms and bushes (and poincianas for those keeping score) along the Overseas Highway that we’d be forgiven for thinking nature created those postcard-perfect vignettes. Nah, just old-fashioned government bureaucracies at work.

How’s this for a tinfoil-hat conspiracy: The gubermint done planted all that stuff to distract us from the nightmare of traversing U.S. 1 from Key West to the mainland. Maybe if we’re busy admiring the scenery we won’t notice we’ve been stuck for 45 minutes in Islamorada.

It doesn’t take a traffic study (although we have them aplenty) to tell us the one road in and out of the Keys is buckling under the pressure of escalating traffic. Think it’s a horror show in Key West? Then you haven’t tried getting through the Upper Keys on an event-packed weekend or down the Keys as the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority tries to figure out how to get water from the mainland to my shower.

The Florida Keys and Key West have spent decades building so they would come and then we took pictures of, oh, say, 100 square feet of a pristine sand, surf and sun sandbar and let folks’ imaginations extrapolate the snapshot into their personal reality of the Keys.

Traffic in the Keys

Traffic in the Keys | How much is too much?

Tourism is our primary economic driver by far. We would not survive without tourism and we have created this monstrous conundrum: (1) Feed the tourism machine and its accompanying development that sustains the quality of life (think air conditioning, mainland-style grocery stores, potable water and telecommunications); (2) or rein in that same development that threatens the infrastructure and the ecosystems that make us a desirable destination.

Three of five Monroe County commissioners on Nov. 8 chose feeding the tourism machine over mitigating development when they rejected their 2023 traffic study. Accepting the 2023 study would have meant no new development (except single family homes) along the Overseas Highway without adequate traffic mitigation.

Only commissioners Craig Cates and Michele Lincoln seemed to really grasp both the conundrum and the reality that constant road construction and infrastructure repair are chronic problems. As Lincoln put it, “If this is our new normal, then developers must come to the table with mitigation ideas.” Both appeared willing to accept the 2023 study with the provision that another be done in 2024 to re-assess the impacts of construction along the highway.

Instead, commissioners Jim Scholl, David Rice and Holly Merrill Raschein figured the 2021 study was good enough, left it in place and said they’d do another survey in 2024. They simply did the ol’ two-step shuffle and kicked that can down the road. Build on with no traffic mitigation for at least another year, likely two.

Here’s the problem with the 2021 study. Do you remember 2021? Yeah, smack in the middle of Covid, and while it sure felt like we were swamped with outsiders, traffic on the Overseas Highway was as much as nine percent higher in 2023 than in 2021.

By 2023, traffic increases had more than doubled congestion at traffic signals. There were six drawbridge openings in 2023 and two during the 2021 study. Construction delays went from 2.25 hours in 2021 to 4.5 hours in 2023. Special-event delays increased from one in 2021 to eight in 2023.

When the pre-Covid traffic study was done in 2019, the results were much like 2023. But the county board didn’t like the study’s methodology (much less the outcome), so the board ordered a new study for 2021 with different parameters. Results were a hair better than 2019, so, voila, keep on building.

Too many developers and officials have the mistaken view that because tourism is good, more of it is automatically better. They live by the fallacy of “If we build more, more will come.” It won’t continue to work that way because if visitors can’t get here or get out, they eventually won’t come at all. And, let’s be honest. Officials also live in dread of “takings” lawsuits from developers who’ve paid premium property prices and then find their plans for huge returns dashed by growth restrictions. Best to kick that can down the road.

The 2023 study is the new normal. We should halt commercial development unless there is adequate developer mitigation for the increased traffic. We must accept there will never again be a time when the drive along the Keys from Key West to the mainland is worthy of a postcard. It is, instead, too often a dreadful four-plus hour, road-rage inducing, 113-mile, gridlocked monster.

At least we have pretty roadside landscaping to look at while we wonder if we can make it to the next bathroom.

1 Comment

  1. Bruce Reed

    You’re assuming the finished product will be an improvement.
    Not so on Stock Island or Flagler Ave,

    Reply

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Avatar of Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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