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Metropolitan Planning Organization member Doug Smith rejects draft work plan without desired traffic signals

STUART – For the first time in his two decades as serving on the Metropolitan Planning Organization, Martin County Commissioner Doug Smith voted to reject a five-year Draft Tentative Work Program because two of the his desired priorities were on the bottom of the priority list.

Commissioner Smith debated back and forth with Florida Department of Transportation District Four Secretary Gerry O’Reilly over what he viewed as the need to ease the safety concerns of residents who use both the Constitution Boulevard intersection with Southeast Federal Highway and the South River Drive intersection with Kanner Highway. Although the MPO approved its priority list last summer with the two proposed traffic signal requests at the bottom, residents have since pleaded with Martin County commissioners to lobby harder for the traffic lights. When the commissioner asked MPO Administrator Beth Beltran if they could discuss changing the order of the priority list, she balked.

“Just to clarify commissioner, they [FDOT] put together the tentative work plan based on the priorities that you all approved in June, and you’ll have another opportunity to re-prioritize,” she said referring to next summer. “We won’t be voting on the priority list, just the Draft Tentative Work Program.”

Commissioner Smith continued to insist on the need to re-prioritize the list, and Ms. Beltran looked toward Mr. O’Reilly, who then came to the podium and described how FDOT authorizes a new traffic light.

“When you give us a priority to build a signal, two things have to happen there,” he said. “One, there has to be money to do the signal, and you prioritize it high enough for there to be money to do it. But if a signal is needed and warranted, we want to put it in anyway.”

The problem, continued Commissioner Smith, is FDOT determined neither signal was warranted, or needed, in those locations.

“I understand that they don’t warrant, but we have our residents coming to us and demanding we do something,” he added. “Right now they’re at the bottom of the list, which says that they’re not important – they’re not funded – and the only way I know to do that is to put them in a higher position.”

The DOT secretary insisted safety was the organization’s top priority and that the MPO was ultimately responsible for where such items fell on the priority list created early every summer.

“Obviously it’s easy for the DOT to tell you we didn’t fund them because they’re down on the list, so vote them higher,” he said. “The reality is, even if they weren’t on the list and we felt there was a signal needed there to help control traffic and for safety, we would build it and do it regardless.”

For her part, County Commissioner Stacey Hetherington admitted she had previously discussed the South River Drive/Kanner Highway signalization with Secretary O’Reilly and wanted to ensure another improvement was on track for that intersection.

On South River and Kanner, there was the southbound right-hand turn lane and then there was the traffic signal,” she emphasized. “On the right southbound turn lane, the county has agreed to work with the DOT. I want to make sure on this particular project that the southbound turn lane doesn’t get lost in the signaling so they’re working in two separate lateral tracks.”

“They are,” Mr. O’Reilly assured her. “That’s funded for design, and that turn lane is moving on.”

In addition to the traffic signal concerns, the two commissioners also pleaded with the FDOT officials present during the Oct. 21 meeting to address what they viewed as a major safety issue on State Road 710. Commissioner Smith informed them they’d had another fatality on that two-lane roadway three days prior to the meeting, retired Martin County firefighter Chris Buchanan who died Oct. 18 when the pickup truck he was driving got hit head-on by a dump truck.

“We had the same similar incident happen probably five months ago and we talked at the MPO about doing something different out there,” Commissioner Smith said, referring to a head-on collision that took the life of West Palm Beach resident Jorge Enrique Avila last Dec. 16. “I don’t know what the plan is or what y’all know about it one way or another, but we cannot continue to have 710 produce the results that it’s producing.”

Secretary O’Reilly emphasized that FDOT had already begun studying that stretch of roadway for potential improvements such as potentially installing passing and turn lanes, but those would be done over the long-term.

“They’re all in draft form right now,” he explained. “So whether it’s passing lanes, whether it’s right-turn lanes to get into these places – you know ultimately that road will be widened, but that is down the road – we need to do something a lot quicker than that. We’ve been actively looking at it since the unfortunate crash several months ago when it came up at the Board meeting here. Our in-house people are reviewing, and you’ll see us starting to do some things we can do immediately with signing, with striping.”

Commissioner Smith insisted FDOT needed to understand the urgency of the SR 710 situation.

“I think we have got to get your staff on the highest level of attention – we just cannot keep having what’s happening out there,” he exclaimed. “Everything else in my mind goes to the backseat until we figure something out. We cannot continue to have those headlines.”

Commissioner Hetherington concurred, asking for confirmation of what was being planned.

“Am I hearing correctly that you could start on education and enforcement issues on that road even though that it doesn’t say funding is allocated?” she asked. “There’s no planning – that’s just study?”

“We’re actively working on the engineering part,” Mr. O’Reilly answered. “We’re doing the studies to see what we can do right now to try and improve it. The ones we can respond to immediately, different signing, different emphasis areas, we’ll be doing that immediately. The ones that involve turn lanes or passing zones take a bit more planning.”

For her part, Commissioner Sarah Heard asked the FDOT secretary about new lighting being installed on I-95 in the northern part of Martin County.

“There’s a fine line between safety and light pollution, and I just wonder why we are targeted for such extraordinary lighting,” she asked. “I don’t know what problem you’re trying to solve, and we’re sensitive about light pollution.”

“I’m going to get you the study to show you exactly why, but typically we categorize accidents or crashes by nighttime or daytime,” Mr. O’Reilly answered. If you have a higher incidence of a certain standard at nighttime, one of the remedies is lighting to try and reduce it.”

Commissioner Hetherington subsequently made a motion to approve the Fiscal Year 2020/21-2024/25 Draft Tentative Work Program, which was seconded by Commissioner Heard. Commissioner Smith made a last-ditch effort to have her amend the motion to include moving the traffic signals up on the priority list but, Ms. Beltran insisted that would need to be an entirely separate motion, which no one offered to make. The motion passed 7-1, with Commissioner Smith dissenting.

“That’s the first one I’ve ever voted against in 20 years,” he said after the vote.

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