Monday, July 13, 2020

A Tale Of Two Highways

Described by some as one of the most scenic drives in North America, and by others as a very slow boring parking lot, neither description of the Overseas Highway makes much of a difference if you live in the Keys. Some days it is extra scenic even to a local's jaded eyes and some other days it is a nightmare of slow distracted traffic as newcomers driver under the speed limit to take in the mixed scenery of open water and strip malls. 
I don't want to spend too much of your time reiterating the history of this famous road that started as a privately funded project called the Over-The-Sea Railroad and after 23 years of no profitability was wrecked by a  storm which prompted the State of Florida in a moment of uncharacteristic socialism to take over the railbe. The State turned it into a road opened in 1938, a great period for public works in our collective history. In 1982  the travel time to the mainland was halved by the new broad road allowing for a less than three hour journey in relative safety and ease, though speaking as one who has been evacuated by air ambulance from US 1 I feel confident in stating not every driver knows what they are doing.
There are sections of four lane highway through the Keys, there are passing zones and the speed limits vary between 45 and 55 miles per hour with some 50 miles per hour and Key Deer nighttime protections at 35 mph. Those are the best as you can find yourself trying to get home behind some oblivious nipnunk who can't tell day from night. Better that than the anxious tourists passing on double yellow lines and closing the highway for hours as their victims bleed to death ( or get saved a sI did by the helicopter). Nine years ago they were wrapping up a major improvement to the Overseas Highway, a $3330 million dollar construction job that was an effort to make approaching the Keys easier and more efficient. The 18 mile stretch (known henceforth as "The Stretch") joins Florida City to Key Largo across the bottom stip of Everglades marsh and it used to be a deathtrap with two lanes, no median and wild passing efforts. The idea was to separate the two directions of traffic with a cement barrier and keep traffic flowing without head on collisions. Job done. However the major design flaw has led to some hairy driving on the stretch...
It's a 45 mile per hour speed limit as you drive through Florida City, an amorphous collection of chain restaurants and gas stations but as the center divider appears, painted an imaginative turquoise color at the suggestion of a Keys resident, the speed limit goes up to 55 mph but the unwary have no idea the two lanes will rapidly shrink to one. That's when the fun begins.
The Stretch was built as a single lane highway with two short passing places to allow traffic build ups to disperse. This creates all the road rage and impatience you can imagine. On the face of it why not create a four lane highway as the land is obviously available, and environmental reservations notwithstanding traffic is heavy as this is the main road in and out of the island chain.
Despite the fact the road passes through empty marshland there are a few turn outs, a state jail, some marinas, maintenance facilities  and cell towers create the need for turning lanes which in the helter skelter requirements of the impatient become illegal and dangerous passing lanes. The dark gray car below is pulling out behind the light gray car to get ahead of the slow moving boat in the picture below (thanks to my wife the  passenger for these photos):
The reason for this is political. It was determined that creating a  four lane highway would open up evacuation times in the case of say, a hurricane. The state safety regulations mandate everyone be able to evacuate the Keys within a certain time limit and this bottleneck has been used to slow and stall development in the Keys. Creating a  smooth fast four lane highway would have been the path to allowing more construction in the islands.  So we get passing in turning lanes, crowding and weird crashes as the drivers push to get to Paradise - terrestrial if they are lucky and celestial if they are less so..
The upshot is that during busy times I take an extra ten minutes or so and ride the other entrance to the Keys along Card Sound Road, a 55 mph road with passing places, light traffic usually and the superb conch fritters at Alabama Jack's. The other highway in the title is called Krome Avenue and that is a  totally different story.
Krome Avenue, also known as Highway 997 in Florida's confusing multi-named highway system runs from Homestead to Highway 27 (Okeechobee Road) through farm country with roadside fruit and vegetable stands and nurseries growing palms for instant landscaping in new developments. It's all rather appropriate as the man it is named for William Julius Krome is famous as the engineer who built the railroad to Key West but is not known for the botanist and agriculturalist he was, before he died unnaturally young.  It's also where dogs just like Rusty get dumped by people who tire of their animals. As you can see road widening is well underway. This used to be a narrow scenic farm road with two lanes, no barriers and lots of crashes and near misses as farm tractors mixed it up with 18 wheelers and boy racers. I never used to drive Krome to avoid freeway crowds on the Turnpike a few miles east of here. These days most of Krome Avenue is an easy drive:
Four lanes, turning lanes, barricades, street lighting with surprisingly modest speed limits, 45-55 miles per hour depending on the urban build up alongside the road. A road sign at the Highway 27 end of Krome announced zero fatalities so far in 2020. And why would there be? Slower traffic keep right and all is well with the world in a slow moving van. The best part is that once the highway is reconfigured to get through Homestead without killing anyone it will be an easy relaxing ride north around the madness that is the Turnpike extension which joins the fatally flawed Stretch. Card Sound to Krome Avenue and Sawgrass Expressway could become the easiest escape from the Keys. Not without traffic lights but still.
So every time I drive the modern safe highway that is Krome Avenue I wonder why The Stretch has to be the stock car race track it has turned into. 





6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find traffic problems no different just about anywhere you go in America, Michael. Except of course on the major interstate highways. The problem with slowpokes is in your head, not the Keys.

Conchscooter said...

Slowpokes are the people who aren't as familiar with the roads as a resident. That is true everywhere. Stick me New York City traffic hunting for an intersection and I am the slow poke. Cruising 85 mph in West Texas on the interstate? I'm the slowpoke.
I am familiar,slightly, with Highway One so I don't feel the need to drop ten below to look at the water as I cross a bridge. I am no longer fascinated (my loss) by the giant lobster in Islamorada....etc...So yes in the Keys it's in my head and elsewhere its in the heads of other locals. Except for the darting distracted people who knock passersby off their scooters. But that's another story. No slowpokes there.

Anonymous said...

But Michael, your near death incident a couple of years ago was on Highway 1 in the keys and not by a dawdling tourist, but rather an impatient local, wasn't it? Seems to me you need to rethink the real problem of many of the traffic dangers in the Keys.

Anonymous said...

Personally, my biggest fear, when driving throughout the keys, were the drunk drivers. Left of center seemed like a good idea to many drivers.
Slow driving at least let you get out of their way.

Conchscooter said...

Ok. I shall.

Natasha said...

This is really interesting as when we returned to the Keys in 2013 after a stretch of almost 10 years of not visiting (9 hour flights from the UK with babies and toddlers was not on the cards at all!} I remember commenting to my husband that I didnt remember that blue concrete median in what I now know is called the Stretch, I only remembered the signs of "3 minutes to passing places" etc... now I feel like I finally know I didnt have false memory.