On several occasions the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, waiting for lights to change, knowing there was no chance I was going to get through the intersections before being stopped again.
Obviously, I wasn’t alone.
Not on our major thoroughfares. Not during the weekday morning, evening and lunchtime rush hours. Not during peak season in the Vero Beach area.
There are thousands of us out there each day, and many of us remember when we didn’t need to plan ahead to avoid traffic here. We knew exactly how long it took get to different places around town. If you were late, you might even be able to make up time on the road.
Now, if you’re late, you’re only going to be later.
There are too many roadwork projects, too many closed railroad crossings and – because of the COVID-spawned surge in the county’s population the past three years – too many cars on the road at the same time.
Simply put: Our traffic infrastructure can’t handle it.
“Even if you take away all the construction and train-crossing closures, you’re still going to have traffic during peak hours, especially during our peak season,” said Rich Szpyrka, the county’s public works director whose department oversees traffic engineering and road maintenance.
“The road capacity just isn’t there,” he added. “Off-peak hours, everything moves fine, under normal circumstances. But you’re never going to build a road wide enough to eliminate the congestion and backups at rush hour, when you have so many cars on the road.
“We know people get frustrated out there, but you can move only so many vehicles through an intersection in a given period of time.”
It’s too easy, Szpyrka said, to blame the traffic engineering.
Szpyrka said the county’s traffic engineer, Erik Ferguson, is actually very proficient and has played a crucial role in managing the impact of the railroad-crossing work being done to prepare for the Brightline passenger trains scheduled to start zipping through our community later this year.
“Timing the traffic signals is a tough thing,” Szpyrka said. “We’re constantly monitoring the major intersections, trying to improve traffic flow and making tweaks to the cycles.
“But there’s only so much you can do,” he added. “And no matter what you do – if you extend the cycle in one direction, the people waiting to go in the other direction have to wait longer – somebody is always going to be unhappy.”
So what’s the solution?
Widening roads and adding lanes increases capacity, which is what is being done along 58th and 66th avenues, as well as 43rd Avenue to the immediate north and south of State Road 60.
But those projects are extremely costly, take years to plan and execute, and often require state approval and the necessary right-of-way, which isn’t always available.
For example: Szpyrka cited the heavily trafficked intersection of State Road 60 and 58th Avenue.
“How do I put another 12-foot-wide lane in there without taking away a section of somebody’s parking lot?” he asked rhetorically. “And are the property owners going to allow us to do that?”
State roads are built and maintained by the Florida Department of Transportation, which would need to address, approve and fund any improvements to A1A, 510 and even U.S. 1.
Szpyrka said FDOT is preparing to embark on a multi-phase plan to widen State Road 510, from two lanes to four, between County Road 512 and 58th Avenue. The agency also has authorized a study to determine the viability of widening 510 east of U.S. 1, as well as evaluating the need for improvements to the intersection of 510 and U.S. 1.
It’s much too soon to know what the study’s recommendations will be, which means it will be years before any such project is launched. But those two additional lanes on 510, east of U.S. 1, are needed now.
One late afternoon last week, in fact, westbound traffic on 510 was backed up from U.S. 1 to A1A, with cars moving at a crawl over the Wabasso Causeway Bridge.
I’ve also found myself held hostage by lunch-hour traffic on U.S. 1, between 37th Street and State Road 60, where it’s not uncommon to encounter red lights at two, three or even four consecutive intersections.
The U.S. 1 intersections at 26th and 23rd streets have become especially congested at that time of day, often requiring two or three light changes to get through them. The intersection at 17th Street isn’t much better.
Roadwork also has snarled traffic along Indian River Boulevard, and the backups on southbound A1A – headed to Beachland Boulevard – remain a peak-season daytime nightmare.
Get used to it.
According to the U.S. Census, the county’s population jumped from 113,000 in 2000 to 138,000 in 2010 to 160,000 in 2020. And as the calendar turned to 2023, we were already moving beyond 165,000.
“Historically, the increases we’re seeing are higher than usual,” County Community Development Director Phil Matson said. “We’re usually at 1.6 or 1.7 percent growth. The past couple of years, we’ve been at about 2 percent.
“So more people are moving here, and that puts more cars on the road,” he added. “For those who’ve been here for 20 years or more, it certainly looks more congested, when compared to what it was like when they first arrived.”
Compounding the problem, Matson said, is the combination of road construction and railroad-crossing closures we’ve been experiencing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many roads under construction or repair,” he said. “Traffic is ramping up at the same time we’ve got a lot of roadwork being done. Then you throw in the railroad crossings …
“We’re in our busy season – and it’s been a very active season – so there’s an unusual demand on our roads,” he added. “But we’ve got several projects ongoing, and some in the planning stages, and we’re expanding our capacity.
“It’ll get better.”
For those wondering, FDOT projects we can expect to see in the coming decade include replacing the Sebastian Inlet bridge, building a new interchange at I-95 and Oslo Road, and extending Aviation Boulevard across U.S. 1 to the Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital complex.
Matson went on to compare the traffic situation here to the troubles found in other communities of similar size around the state.
“Comparatively speaking, I don’t think you’ll find another place in Florida with less congestion,” he said, adding, “Vero Beach always gets compared to Stuart, but Stuart’s traffic is worse.”
That’s small consolation for a community that’s struggling to retain its relaxed pace, friendly feel and small-town charm.
Maybe you’ve noticed: The congestion on our roads and backups at intersections have produced an alarming increase in aggressive driving and road rage exhibited by motorists who recklessly weave in and out of traffic and run red lights.
And yet a wrongheaded majority on the Vero Beach City Council wants to reduce lanes on State Road 60 through downtown. Let’s hope enough folks in our community show up at FDOT’s public hearings and voice the opposition needed to kill the shortsighted plan.
Meanwhile, the county’s population continues to grow faster than local and state officials can build and widen roads to accommodate the increase in traffic.
So be careful out there, and try to be patient.
You’re not alone anymore.
Photos by Joshua Kodis