Sunday, April 24, 2016

St. Augustine Record editorial backed by actual research (I knew they could do it!)

St. Augustine Record editorial backed by actual research (I knew they could do it!)
But as my religious tradition teaches, "patience is a virtue." Let the boat-trailer people wait for the light, rather than racing through residential neighborhoods and destroying the peaceful quiet enjoyment of Nelmar Terrace.
Don't be a hog, boat-trailer people!

Editorial column by Jim Sutton: Nelmar Trace traffic tiff is old news in St. Augustine
Not the first rodeo
Posted: April 24, 2016 - 12:03am

Someone once said that the more things change, the more they stay the same

He may have been speaking about Nelmar Terrace and a neighborhood request to shut down the May Street entrances to both Douglas and Magnolia Avenues. The purpose, we understand, is to block cars that currently use those side streets as a quick detour, bypassing the light at May Street and San Marco Avenue. That’s the intersection getting a major makeover by the Florida Department of Transportation. St. Augustine may be partnering in that effort, if only because it owns the much of the land that will likely be required for the fix of one of the city’s more bottle-necked crossroads. And you’ll recall the city bought the land from 7-Eleven last year in order to stop the construction of convenience store on that property — ostensibly because its presence would add to the traffic woes.

Not the first rodeo

Back up to 1993. In a March 8 City Commission meeting, the same notion was floated. Then-City Manager Joe Pomar reported on a survey of residents regarding the closure of those same roads to through traffic. A discussion ensued. Back then, the purported concern by affected residents was the construction of the new Vilano Bridge, and having heavy construction vehicles using the neighborhood streets. Also notable was there seemed to be about as much opposition to the barricade plan from neighbors as there was support. Basically, the farther the neighbors were away from May Street north and south, the more the opposition — and vice versa. The commission, according to the minutes, was concerned that there weren’t enough respondents. Pomar said that if 100 percent of the neighbors responded, the results would remain the same — inconclusive.

Short story, a motion to close the streets due to bridge construction passed 3-2. Estimated time for construction of the bridge? Three years.

Barricades: Take two

But the next month, an attorney for some of the residents spoke to the commission, charging that the vote wasn’t a legal one because, technically, the item had been brought up on the consent agenda and had not been subject to a public hearing. She was also a bit chagrined that the barricades had been put up two hours after the original vote, but that bids for the Vilano Bridge project had not even been let at the time.

She charged that the plan was simply ill-conceived, noting that May Street had gridlocked three times daily since the barricades were erected.

A second attorney, also in opposition, argued that the city had failed to consider emergency vehicle traffic, flooding, alternative solutions and enhanced enforcement. Sound familiar?

The issue of the street closings being more than a city issue came up as well. In fact, commissioners invited then-County Commissioner Linda Balsavage, who was attending the meeting, to speak. She hoped it did not “become a divisive issue” between the two governments or the neighborhood. Sound familiar? She asked that the barricades come down until either the public meeting was held or the bridge construction began ... whichever came first.

Another vote was taken. The motion was to remove the barricades until a proper community meeting could be held at Flagler College. It passed unanimously. And the barricades were gone.

Third time no charm

The Flagler free-for-all came first. It was a doozy. The minutes of that meeting are 30 pages long, single-spaced.

But highlights included a list of alternatives by barricade opponents that included a four-way stop sign at Dufferin and Magnolia or San Carlos and Magnolia, speed bumps, an 8-foot “no trucks” sign, a traffic light a May Street and Magnolia and increased enforcement.

The neighbors in favor of the closings brought along two attorneys to argue their case, Tom Cushman and Mac McLeod — along with a petition signed by 104 neighbors. Arguments were similar to current concerns, but also included flooding, and an offer by FSDB to allow emergency vehicles access through its campus. No details were discussed.

What was interesting was that some of the residents were citing an FDOT study of the May Street-San Marco intersection. Five alternatives were proffered, including four-laning May Street at cost of $4 million.

Lots of neighbors spoke about privacy, safety and declining property values. That hasn’t happened. Throngs of North Beach residents spoke against the plan. They were backed by the local post office, Florida Power & Light and the Sheriff’s Office.

The Fountain of Youth was unhappy about the barricades too.

Later in the meeting the blame game began, with the FDOT as the whipping boy. One Nelmar resident seemed to suggest that it had failed to solve the traffic problem and cleverly succeeded in dividing the residents of Vilano and May Street against North City residents — in the process, saving itself $30 million by offering up her neighborhood as a fatted-calf solution.

One speaker suggested that all the parties come together and put the onus on the state. Another blamed part of the problem on FSDB teachers. You get the point.

After a final recess, Joe Stephenson, FDOT’s regional planning director, took the hot seat. Now the conversation turned to relocating the Vilano Bridge. Stephenson was patient, but the bottom line was that the bridge plans were made, the bids let and that was that.

But it’s interesting that in the final vote one of the solutions was to get the bridge done as quickly as possible because, without the drawbridge, surges of traffic would be eliminated.

Stephenson’s concluded improving the intersection at the light was the only real solution. He told commissioners that the FDOT had been studying that for over two years (in 1993, remember), had looked at a dozen different plans and brought five to the city commission for consideration — among them a “staggered-T” intersection and four-laning May Street.

Commissioners eventually voted 3-2 that day to remove the barricades and study the plans.

Déjà vu all over again

Twenty-three years later, we’re still studying plans.

It’s an interesting document. Two things come to mind.

The first is, if things were that bad then — and considering staggering traffic (perhaps tenfold) increases since — has the burden on the neighborhoods escalated commensurately over 23 years? It does not seem so.

And, since May Street is a state road and the May Street-San Marco constriction affects much more than the surrounding neighborhood, might it not be wise to talk with the FDOT about the effect barricading the side streets might have on the current plans — or vice versa? For example, those side streets may play an integral part in moving traffic during the major construction ahead at that intersection: A problem in itself.

It might be helpful if the city posts the public hearing minutes on its website for all interested parties to study.

If residents read the old story and compare it to the new, we may find ways to avoid another two-plus decades of grandstanding, wheel-spinning and neighborhood-fracturing. There’s got to be a better way.

Special thanks to Assistant City Manager Tim Burchfield and the crew at the clerk’s office for tracking down minutes for the three meetings.

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