Streets for People / City Fails, Again, to Make South Roosevelt Boulevard and Promenade Safer for Bikes, Pedestrians and Vehicles

It’s like déjà vu all over again. In 2017, the then City Commission overruled FDOT, the City’s Engineering Director and a majority of citizens who participated in a public process to reject a safer S. Roosevelt Blvd. that would have included protected bike lanes and a middle turn lane along Smathers Beach. We’ve just learned that despite this City Commission voting 6-1 in May to rescind that 2017 decision that nothing will change, and we’ll get the same four vehicle lanes we’ve got now when FDOT reconstructs the road. While this City Commission may feel better because they tried to right this wrong, they don’t get a pass.

Their resolution this past May to direct City Engineering staff to make the corridor safer with a new design came with a catch that any change couldn’t cost the City more money nor interfere with the timeline of the project. A project that because of its size and scope will be with us for a generation. So, it isn’t surprising that the City Engineer just announced that making adjustments would both cost more money and likely disrupt the timeline and so there will be no changes and work will proceed as directed in 2017 on four vehicle lanes.

It’s the Same Old Song – City Hall Seems to Have Mainland Values When It Comes to Cars

Despite some commissioners’ sincere attempt at change, the City gets another FAIL because the attempt was much too timid to succeed, just like we said in May. The Commissioners should have been willing to spend additional planning money and even let the timeline slip for a project that will last 25 or so years. 

They get a FAIL for the First and Bertha Street Corridor, which is being completely rebuilt right now from one end to the other because while the City’s adopted Bike/Ped Plan calls for protected bike lanes for the length of the important crosstown project, we will not get those lanes as the City told the County – who’s doing the rebuild – to choose little used parking spaces over bikeways. They got a FAIL when the Palm Avenue Bridge was recently rebuilt by the County because they didn’t step in and ask for pedestrian and bicycle improvements. And the City got a FAIL when they rebuilt Duval and Simonton Streets during the shutdown and didn’t add any bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure whatsoever, when all it would have taken is a little paint.

Experts tell us the perfect time to reconfigure our streets is during a repaving or rebuilding. Yet, time after time in the last few years, our City’s leaders have chosen mainland values of vehicle parking and car convenience over safer streets for bicycle and pedestrians. It’s almost as if our leaders think they’re presiding over Orlando, Boca, West Palm or Ocala and not a little 7 square mile island that should be easy to emphasize biking, walking and transit. We don’t doubt their good intentions, but the record is pretty clear that we’ve yet to take any parking or car lanes and repurpose them for protected bicycle infrastructure, wider sidewalks or closed streets for people anywhere in the City. 

The Result – A Less Safe South Roosevelt Boulevard and Promenade and a Problem With E-Bikes and E-Scooters Remains

The City worked for over a year on a new e-bikes/e-scooters ordinance that took effect this past summer. We talked about that here: Averting E-Bike Mayhem and Making Key West Sidewalks Safer; February 12, 2021. One of the reasons for this ordinance was conflicts with pedestrians on sidewalks, especially on North and South Roosevelt Promenades. South Roosevelt, particularly the stretch along Smathers Beach, is full of persons going to the beach from nearby cars and hotels/condos and getting drinks and food from vendors, walkers, joggers, runners and lots of bicycles and now e-bikes and e-scooters all sharing the Promenade, while the vehicles get to spread out among four broad lanes and one parking lane of their own. 

People bemoan how fast e-bikes and e-scooters travel on the sidewalks. And while the new Ordinance can regulate their speed and prohibit these vehicles from some sidewalks with the exception of N. and S. Roosevelt Promenades because they are State designated bike paths, it does beg the question, where should these e-vehicles go if we don’t want them on the sidewalk? Adding protected bike lanes in the road next to the beach would have provided an opportunity for bicycles and faster moving e-bikes and e-scooters to move off of the Promenade making it safer for everyone. That’s not going to happen.

And so, the failure to get this right, makes for a less safe Promenade. This is a problem all over the Key West. If we want these new e-vehicles off the sidewalks, we need to make safe space on our roads for them to travel. That means taking some parking or travel lanes and building separate and protected facilities for bikes.

Here’s How We Got Here and What the City Told Us

We’ve well documented the story of how then Commissioners Wardlow, Lopez, Romero, Payne and Mayor Cates voted for no change in 2017 (It’s Time to Reconsider a Road Diet on S. Roosevelt and Make the Promenade and Road Safer; March 26, 2021). At the time FDOT held a very public process asking citizens how they’d like to restripe the road when the rebuild was completed. Participating citizens overwhelming rejected the status quo of four through travel lanes in favor of two travel lanes, a middle turn lane and some sort of protected bikeway either side by side next to the Promenade or on either side of the travel lanes. Said then Engineering Director Jim Bouquet in a memo to the Commissioners: “Choosing the two-lane option for South Roosevelt will better support a transportation system which is aesthetically attractive, functional, efficient, safe and environmentally sensitive.” FDOT said traffic flow and volume wouldn’t be affected and that they recommended change as safer for bikes, pedestrians and cars too. But the then City Manager and Assistant City Manager recommended against change and the Commissioners, with the exception of Sam Kaufman and Jimmy Weekley, agreed with them and thought they knew better, putting a stop to any changes FDOT recommended.

Fast forward to this year. In the wake of increasing e-bike usage and complaints of their fast driving on the Promenade, Commissioner Hoover began looking into the issue of safety on S. Roosevelt. Mayor Johnston and Commissioner Kaufman had already been on to this with the e-bike ordinance. In May of this year, Commissioner Hoover brought a resolution to the Commission that would rescind the 2017 decision and direct the Engineering Department to design a safer road. But as we’ve already discussed without the will to take on additional engineering/planning costs for a redesign and to perhaps push the project back a bit nothing was going to, nor did it change.

Here’s how Engineering Department Director Steve McAlearney put it:

“As a result of the Commission vote (in May) you reference, we contacted both FDOT and a private property where they would need to acquire right-of-way to construct the bike lanes/center turn lane option. As a federally funded project, FDOT needs to meet strict milestones to preserve that funding, i.e., if you miss a milestone, you jeopardize the funding. It was determined that a change in plans would be entirely at City expense, with great likelihood of both not being granted the needed ROW and not having “City” plans completed by milestone dates, at which point FDOT would proceed as directed by a previous Commission vote (the current plans). This was briefed to the current Commission at their next meeting.

What ultimately happened was FDOT designed the segment in accordance with the wishes of a (previous) City Commission resolution. After the project had progressed down it’s 5-year project timeline, the current Commission tried to make a change, which was ultimately too late to implement. FDOT District 6 has moved the project timeline forward. Public bid will occur in May 2022. Construction start is anticipated in September 2022.”

Said Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover, who sponsored the May resolution: 

“I appreciate you asking for my comments. As noted in your article, it was a different commission then. Unfortunately, I only became aware of this project this past summer. As I’ve begun to understand how others have worked with and been successful with FDOT, you have to be on board with them from the beginning. So, when the former commission voted strongly against adding bike lanes and two-lane traffic with a middle turn lane, that was “baked into the cake.” I have talked with Steve and Kelly and we may be able to do something in the future, but it’s not just changing where the paint is applied.”

And here’s what Commissioner Sam Kaufman, one of only two Commissioners (the other being Jimmy Weekley) to vote the right way had to say:

“This is a missed opportunity for FDOT and the city to provide a safer roadway for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians for S. Roosevelt Blvd. In 2017, FDOT advised city officials that inclusion of dedicated turn lanes and dedicated bicycle lanes was a safer and better design. FDOT followed the direction given by the City in 2017. Thereafter, City officials in 2021 agreed that the 2017 chosen design was inferior but FDOT had advised that their funding process precluded them from changing the design to one inclusive of turn lanes and bike lanes.”

Here’s What Bicycle Advocates Are Saying

“South Roosevelt was dealt with two city managers ago, Jim Scholl to be exact. One of the least knowledgeable city managers the Key West has ever seen. The mayor and commissioners share blame too, none of them showed any particular interest in a more pedestrian/cyclist friendly design. None of them bike or walk out there much so it’s not surprising. Jim’s ineptitude will continue to negatively affect us into the near future. In the end it’s the fear of change and simultaneous obliviousness to change that prevents us from having anything nice.”

– Tom “The Bike Man” Theisen; Owner, BikeMan Bike Rentals Key West 

“Very short-sighted decision because of worries about delays and increased costs that changing course to incorporate safety and bike/ped improvements would cause (and need for easements from Key West by the Sea). On the positive side, we did witness spontaneous local community support for a safer road with sidewalks, slower traffic, and bike lanes. This resulted in a positive conversation and vote at the commission level about the need for these type improvements on every road project. On the negative side, again all talk and no action with zero safety improvements in this once in a 20+ year project.”

– Roger McVeigh; Local Bicycle Advocate and Member of the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board of Key West

Moving From Failure to Hope

South Roosevelt Boulevard and Promenade, First and Bertha Streets, Palm Avenue Bridge, Duval and Simonton Streets. All of these projects receive a FAIL for not incorporating safer bike and pedestrian improvements into each project at a time it would have been easy to do so – when they are being rebuilt or repaved. The record is pretty clear that we’ve yet to take any parking or car lanes and repurpose them for protected bicycle infrastructure, wider sidewalks or closed streets for people anywhere in Key West. Until something changes, we’ll continue to hold City Hall’s feet to the fire and not let folks get away with good intentions and talk as enough. 

If there’s anything that gives us hope, it’s this. The City’s new Transportation Coordinator, Ryan Stachurski, is on record as having participated in those 2017 FDOT public meetings and was a very strong advocate for change. Commissioners Kaufman and Weekley, known bicycle advocates, who were outvoted at the time have since been joined by Commissioners Hoover and Davila and Mayor Johnston all of whom have demonstrated a much greater understanding of and willingness to do something on these issues versus previous commissioners. Even Commissioner Lopez, who voted against change in 2017 was willing to listen and change his mind. So, the next time the opportunity arises to take some parking or a portion of a travel lane in favor of bicycle and pedestrian safety we’re expecting things to go differently. We’ll all be watching…

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. He’s a native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives downtown and works and volunteers for a couple non-profits. 

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