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The Overseas Highway is an attraction, a lifeline — and sometimes dangerous. Locals hope to make it better

 The Overseas Highway offers incomparable experiences like driving over the Seven Mile Bridge, but can also be dangerous as these memorial signs at the approach to the bridge attest.
Nancy Klingener
The Overseas Highway offers incomparable experiences like driving over the Seven Mile Bridge, but can also be dangerous as these memorial signs at the approach to the bridge attest.

Monroe County Commissioner David Rice discusses plans to make the road safer.

The Overseas Highway is a national scenic highway spanning the Florida Keys more than 100 miles from Key Largo to Key West.

Relying on that one road can be frustrating and dangerous. One crash can close off access to large parts of the island chain and tourist traffic causes bottlenecks especially in the Upper Keys.

Now, Monroe County has come up with a plan to make that road easier and safer. WLRN's Nancy Klingener spoke with County Commissioner David Rice, who led the transportation committee.

The Monroe County Commission held a meeting about the plan on Nov. 3.

RICE: I would describe the Overseas Highway, and its role, as everything to everybody. It's our main street in our local communities. It's our long distance transit highway simultaneously. It is our lifeline. It is our supply route. The entire Keys orients around that highway. Because it's truly the only way to get from Point A to Point B.

WLRN: And what's the purpose of this master plan with only one road? You know, we're not looking at adding a lot of lanes or alternate routes, right?

Right. The county conducted a strategic planning session that involved many many public meetings up and down the Keys. And at every meeting, difficulties with the highway were either number one or very near number one concern of the folks who participated.

We know we have limits. We can't do many things that would be done on the mainland to improve traffic flow. We just don't have the land mass to do that at every place. But we are committed to looking at that highway and establishing things that can be done that can improve both safety and flow of traffic on the highway.

We're never going to have a four- or six-lane thoroughfare through the Keys, I don't believe. But there are things that can be done — timing of stop lights, management of accident scenes. Turn lanes, acceleration lanes are two major ingredients. And I think, particularly in the Islamorada area there, they could enhance the flow of traffic to some level.

The county's consultants came up with some kind of out-there ideas like gondolas and little tiny private planes. Did you ask for out-of-the-box ideas and is there a role for them? 

We discussed out-of-the-box ideas. An idea is just an idea. And I frankly encourage that kind of thing. It's easy enough to say, you know, the time's not here. This is today's Studebaker, you know, it was before its time, but it doesn't hurt to dream. And we all recognize that those options are fantastically expensive and that the time may not be here yet if it ever is. But it doesn't hurt anything to plan, to think and say, "well, maybe one day, who knows."

The master plan is constituted of 170-some-odd recommendations, I believe, which could possibly help our traffic flow. So we expect to have some of those recommendations studied and discarded by DOT [the Florida Department of Transportation]. That's fine, because if we come out of it with a reasonable number of them and the attitude of DOT being, we can make changes that can improve safety and traffic flow on that highway because we believe that can be done.

It's really DOT's job, right? It's their highway.

Well, but it's our home. Obviously U.S. 1 is a state and federal highway. It runs to Maine, as you well know. But it's also our main street.

Monroe County Public Library

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.