WLRN's the end of the road

WLRN-Miami Herald News is taking a year-long look at the 87-mile stretch of Interstate 95 running through South Florida. Learn more about our project here.

By Mark Hedden - How Madonna Shaped My Romance with I-95

By Mark Hedden

How Madonna Shaped My Romance with I-95

I-95: Road songs with a #@!%ing twist

The classic American road song gets (at least) the PG-13 treatment when it’s about I-95.

By Kenny Malone
kmalone@miamiherald.com 

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ABOVE: One of the 1,000 vinyl copies originally made of August Campbell’s “The I-95 Song.” (Photo by Kenny Malone. Record courtesy of Kathy Heinly)

They write songs about roads: “Route 66,” “Highway 61 Revisited.” Dusty, old roads with iconic signage that belongs on a pair of blue jeans.

“When you talk about … the road as an attractive proposition, usually it’s open and it’s drivable,” says composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who teaches American creative music at the University of Miami Frost School of Music. “I-95 is a little bit of the opposite. So I can see how songs would be written in a negative way about it.”

"Negative" is, perhaps, kind.

Case in point: August Campbell’s twangy ballad: “The I-95 Song (The Asshole Song).” Recorded in 1983, it became regionally famous on The Neil Rodgers Show.

The song’s premise is built into its spoken-word preamble:

Well I was drivin’ down I-95 the other night/Somebody nearly cut me right off the road/I decided it wasn’t gonna do any good to get mad/So I wrote a song about him instead/It goes like this…

In 1982, Kathy Heinly was one of four people who paid $125 to help Campbell record “The I-95 Song” and print 1,000 vinyl copies.

Heinly, now a retired 66-year-old who wears thick-rimmed glasses and is a tour guide at Vizcaya, doesn’t remember the whole song anymore. But she remembers just enough…

"I-95 is a commuter’s road,” says Bobby “BBG” Goldman of the Broward-born BlueHouse Band. “It becomes part of your job. And that’s why ‘it’s a living hell.’”

In 2007, BlueHouse released “Who’s In The House?” featuring its own anti-ode track, “I-95.”

When asked if he remembered where he wrote the song, BlueHouse frontman Rob Alter said: “Well I do remember — I remember just easing into a lounge chair on the island of Maui. Where the hell do you think I was when I wrote it!? No, I was driving down I-95!”

Alter, like Campbell, simply could not write about I-95 without getting explicit. One verse, from the radio-friendly version, reads, in part: “I-95. You’ll [Car Horn] your pants, I-95.”

"If you drive on 95 without thinking a naughty word," said Alter, "you’re really not with it."

BELOW: The BlueHouse Band broke up since releasing their 2007 album, but its members agreed to perform the first-ever acoustic version of “I-95” for us. Goldman is on the spoons. Rob Alter sings and plays guitar. (Richie Goldman, the band’s third member, was out of town.)

BELOW: Hear the entire WLRN-Miami Herald radio story below.

Yes, People Do Get Pulled Over and/or Why @EvanBenn Owes Us

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By Kenny Malone

Yesterday we explained how the Florida Highway Patrol has been getting flooded by complaints of unchecked speed in the 95 Express lanes. (The story also ran in the Miami Herald and on WLRN.)

In case there was any doubt that traffic stops occur, we present the case of Evan Benn.

Benn, the Miami Herald’s new economy reporter, tweeted us the following confession today:

In the story Benn’s referring to, an FHP spokesman told us that the narrow shoulder inside the express-lanes has made enforcement difficult at best. There are but a handful of places wide enough to make a traffic stop within the actual express-lanes.

Benn told the motorcycle trooper who pulled him over that he was ashamed because he’d just read a “story about how dangerous those lanes are to patrol.”

The trooper, who apparently had also seen the story, let Benn off with a warning.

While leaving readers more informed is, of course, reward enough for The End of the Road project, it’s worth pointing out that a ticket for going 19 MPH over the speed limit would have cost Evan Benn $269 in Miami-Dade County. Certainly he could afford to buy us a well-reviewed beer or two for being so informative.

In addition to his staff job at the Miami Herald Evan Benn is a beer columnist for Esquire.com. He is author of the book “Brew in the Lou: St. Louis’ Beer Culture, Past, Present & Future.” Tell us about your life at The End of the Road by using  #WLRN95.

I-95’s narrow shoulders and speeding cars problematic for FHP, official says

By Kenny Malone

The 95 Express Project has gotten traffic moving. But maybe too well?

ABOVE: An hour-by-hour graph of the average weekday speed of traffic in the southbound I-95 express and general purpose lanes.

Trooper Joe Sanchez has a problem with the 95 Express lanes. Going about 60 MPH in the express lanes, he pulls his Florida Highway Patrol SUV within inches of the median and comes to a full stop. He’s technically on the 95 Express shoulder.

"See? Can you get out there?" he asks as traffic zips past the passenger window. Sanchez, the spokesman for the FHP in Miami-Dade County, sounds like he’s at his wit’s end. "You’re just about in the lane, so you cannot make a traffic stop here. You’d be putting your life in danger and you’d be putting the lives of the motorists in danger.”

Complaints about unchecked speed on 95 Express have been flooding into Sanchez’s office and his message is simple: FHP is doing what it can, but there are limitations to enforcement.

The shoulder width for virtually all of the so-called “Lexus lanes” is 7 feet, 11 inches — nowhere near the 14-foot shoulder nationally recommended for HOV-lane projects.

That leaves two options for officers: Use one of the few, brief stretches of shoulder wide enough to issue a citation or follow a speeding car all the way out of the express lanes, assuming the officer doesn’t get caught in traffic doing so.

“Motorists tend to realize that and say, ‘There’s no way they’re going to stop me here so I can go any speed’,” Sanchez says.

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An FHP trooper in one of the few stretches of 95 Express shoulder wider than 8 feet. PHOTO BY KENNY MALONE 

Florida Department of Transportation numbers show the average speed of express-lane traffic for most of the day is between 64 and 66 MPH. The speed limit, which is the same for both the express lanes and the general-purpose lanes, is either 55 MPH or 60 MPH depending on where you are.

That means the average speed of traffic for large chunks of the day can be as much as 11 MPH above the speed limit.

“Engineering can only do so much to make people drive the speed limit,” says Omar Meitin, the traffic operations engineer for FDOT in Miami-Dade County. “But if the road is wide open and people feel comfortable, they’re going to drive at the speeds they feel more apt to.”

The speed limit through much of the 95 Express corridor was increased from 55 MPH to 60 MPH in September. Meitin says FDOT is in the final stages of raising the remaining section to 60 MPH.

With the new limit in place, express-lane speeds wouldn’t look quite as bad. The highest speeds are in the 95 Express southbound lanes from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., when traffic averages 66 MPH.

"Occasionally I will see someone who’s going way too fast, weaving in and out of traffic," says Kevin Cerino, of Lauderhill. "They should be pulled over and their car should be impounded."

But Cerino, who uses 95 Express daily to commute home from his job at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, generally doesn’t feel like the speeding has gotten out of hand and thinks a 65 MPH speed limit might make more sense.

“Let’s be fair, the express lanes … should be for people who have the reflexes or the ability to drive that speed … And I really don’t have a problem with the speed limit being unlimited on those express lanes,” says Stephen Lustig, who runs the Ticket Titan law firm. “Frankly, I know it sounds crazy because it’s against my interest.”

Lustig is a regular 95 Express commuter. He, unlike some other express-lane drivers, recognizes that a speed limit even exists.

“Yeah, some people think that because you get on the express-lane … they can violate the speed limit,” says trooper Joe Sanchez with the Florida Highway Patrol.

In response to the volume of complaints, FHP will be deploying “Operation I-95 Saturation” later this month. They’ll flood the zone in Miami-Dade County issuing citations and making their presence felt as much as possible.

BELOW: An hour-by-hour graph of the average weekday speed of traffic in the northbound I-95 express and general purpose lanes.

“If you look at any expressway right now, you will find out that most of the time [drivers] will be above the speed limit,” says Rory Santana, an FDOT engineer who oversees the 95 Express Project. “So it’s not really a 95 Express or an I-95 issue.”

Santana doesn’t dismiss the FHP concerns but says the narrow shoulders were a necessary tradeoff to lurch 95 congestion back into motion.

When the lanes are “operating better we usually have less friction, less friction means less accidents,” says Santana. He admits that it’s still early to be looking for trends, especially since the only 95 constant in Miami-Dade County has been change and construction, “but at this point we can say that there has not been an increase in crashes as a result of 95 Express. … For the first time our crashes are more property damage than injury accidents. Which is a great sign.”

Trooper Joe Sanchez admits he’s not seen those stats, but points to his common sense rule of thumb: “Any time that you’re speeding, you need to remember that speed kills. Period. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the express lanes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a country road or a highway or an interstate. Speed kills.”

Kevin Cerino came to us through the Public Insight Network. You can share your I-95 story through the PIN by clicking here.

I-95 Has a Speed Limit!?

By Kenny Malone

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I spent last Thursday, in the thick of afternoon rush hour, at the I-95 on-ramp just southwest of the Arsht Center. At around 4:30 p.m., the scene is one-half auto show, one-half salmon-spawning.

I walked from open window to open window hoping to confirm something I’ve always suspected: People don’t really know what the speed limit is on I-95. Even the people seconds away from driving on it.

In my completely unscientific survey, one driver answered 45 MPH. Two guessed 55 MPH. Two more said 65 MPH. And one young woman in a silver Audi most confidently responded: “75 MPH. Am I right?”

"You’re pretty far off," I told her.

"I’m talking about Broward."

Nope. (The highest any Florida speed limit can be is 70 MPH for now.)

Here’s a map of every speed limit change from the beginning/end of the road up to Sunrise Boulevard, where the northbound speed limit hits 65 MPH for the first time. Green pins indicate an increase in speed limit, red a decrease. Click on the pins to see specific limits and whether the change is for northbound or southbound traffic.

(More information below the map.)

Because of construction, there are currently sections of I-95 with 55 MPH limits that would typically be 60 MPH or 65 MPH. What’s on this map is accurate as of Jan. 21, 2014. I went sign-by-sign tracking the posted speed limit and marking the sign location with a GPS.

If you follow the posted speed limit signs heading north, I-95 starts at 45 MPH coming off US1, switches to 55 MPH just south of downtown Miami, increases to 60 MPH just north of the S.R. 112 and then drops back to 55 MPH around the Golden Glades. (An FDOT engineer told me they’re looking into doing away with the drop back down to 55 MPH in Miami-Dade County.)

Broward-to-Dade Among Most “Popular” Commutes in U.S.

In a few of the initial stories from The End of the Road project, we’ve pointed out that living in Broward County and working in Miami-Dade County is by far the most popular county-to-county work situation in South Florida.

(We’ve also documented how commuting from Broward to Dade on I-95 is, at times, a circle of Hell so awful that even “Dante could not have conceived of [it].” So we’re using “popular” in a purely numeric sense here.)

That fact comes from the 2006-2010 American Communities Survey put out by the U.S. Census Bureau. The survey records the county where someone lives and the county where that person works. While this doesn’t necessarily translate to a “commute” by the standard, drive-to-work definition — non-Yahoo employees could be telecommuting — the survey is still one of the better ways to measure commuter culture as a whole.

Below is a table of the 100 most popular county-to-county live/work situations in the country. As it turns out, Broward-to-Miami-Dade is not only tops in South Florida but in all of Florida.

Twelve of the top 100 commutes are in Florida and four of those are in South Florida. You can click the column headers to reorganize the data as you like.

An Explanation of I-95’s $17M ‘Bridge to Nowhere’

(Above, a Google Street View of I-95’s bridge to nowhere.)

There cannot be a more baffling exit on I-95 in Miami-Dade County. As described by reporter Tristram Korten from the road:  

I’m driving north on 95, I see this exit for Miami Beach. I think, “great that’s were want to go.” I get on this exit, I go up in the air. I come back down. I’m back down 95! That’s not my exit for Miami Beach.

The actual exit, he adds, is not for another half a mile.

A few years ago Korten set out to find an explanation for Miami’s “Bridge to Nowhere.” He took a senior FDOT official along for the head-scratching ride.

"So were going on the flyover," explained Alice Bravo, then director of transportation systems development for FDOT in Miami. "We can see below a congested two-lane ramp. So we just probably crossed over at least a 3,000-vehicle-per-hour movement. But now we’re back on an identified mainline and we’re to the right of all those folks."

The flyover was completed in 1994 and cost roughly $17 million. As Korten reports, the idea behind the bridge to nowhere is to keep beach-bound traffic on the right while three different arteries merge with I-95.

"From the east: the MacArthur Causeway," writes Korten, "From the west: the Dolphin Expressway and the exit for Biscayne Boulevard."

"So you can imagine if you have 5 to 6,000 cars per hour weaving to the left," said Bravo, "with probably 2,000 vehicles per hour weaving to the right to exit Miami Beach. That’s a huge conflict point."

Here’s a link to Tristram Korten’s entire radio piece on the bridge to nowhere (including what Alice Bravo thinks of the nickname).

Bus Is The New Train — At Least The Affordable One

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Behold the future, South Florida.

Commuter Mary Hammett rides a transport module that zips down what many call “I-95.” It moves faster than most cars. Hammett relaxes in the back and pulls out her iPhone, which automatically logs in to the module’s WiFi network.

She taps open the Pandora app and gives the James Fortune station a thumbs up — a ‘like’ button on the little screen. As Hammett travels to her downtown Miami office, it’s all smooth sailing and silky gospel vocals.

And a word of advice from the future: Bring a sweater. “You see how cold it is?” Hammett asks.

Mary Hammett is part of a growing group of 95 Express bus riders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who, transportation authorities say, are experiencing the fledgling stage of South Florida’s future bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

Express buses are not a new concept. They provide routes with the fewest possible stops for passengers. What’s new is the 95 Express buses using the 95 Express lanes.

“We’ve always had an express bus service,” says Gus Pego, head of the Florida Department of Transportation in Miami-Dade. “What the managed lanes allows us to do — the express lanes — is build a backbone for bus rapid transit.”

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Mary Hammett’s route is a sort of case study.

Five days a week, Hammett, a Miami-Dade County procurement officer, leaves her car at the Golden Glades park-and-ride and takes the 95 Express downtown. This route has been around for sometime.

“It had been flat at about 1,700 riders … for about five to 10 years,” says Jeff Weidner, Strategic Development Manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. “So it was a success but it had plateaued because the congestion was so severe.”

Historically there wasn’t much advantage to taking a bus into the I-95 congestion.

Yes, you got access to the old high-occupancy vehicle lanes. But it turned out those were just as slow as the rest of traffic.

In 2008, the northbound express lanes opened, providing a more consistently speedy trip for drivers willing to pay a toll. But also, for free, to registered hybrid vehicles and high-occupancy vehicles — including buses.

“There definitely has been a sharp increase in the past couple of years due to the creation of the express lanes,” says Miami-Dade Transit spokeswoman Irene Ferradaz.

In the last few years Mary Hammett’s route has seen a nearly 50-percent increase in ridership. Miami-Dade and Broward transit agencies have added four inter-county 95 Express buses.

All told, the average weekday ridership of 95 Express buses was 5,321 last October, the month for which the most recent data is available. 

One of the new buses, from Miramar to Miami, has become so popular, the park-and-ride lot is being moved to accommodate all the traffic. 

The routes are attracting what transit officials call “choice riders.”

“These are people who have vehicles or have access to vehicles,” says Ferradaz, “but choose to use public transportation.”

Jan Smith, a federal public defender, lived in Pembroke Pines and was working downtown when the inter-county routes first started running. Smith had a car, but had switched to Metrorail after getting fed up with traffic on I-95 and surface streets. He ditched Metrorail for the 95 Express bus due to rail service delays — and because he wouldn’t have to pay tolls to access the 95 Express lanes.

“At the time, not very many people were riding it,” Smith says. It was just him and “a whole bunch of federal court personnel. We’d run into each other, chat and then spread out.”

Love them or hate them, the express lanes — and likely the express bus service — is spreading across South Florida.

During a recent interview with former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, he pulled out a map of planned express-lane projects, showing a network of highlighted roads spreading farther north on I-95, onto I-595 and I-75 and 826. (Full map below.)

“So now, all of a sudden,” he said, “you have a new kind of a train system but instead of being steel on steel it’s on rubber tires.”

Ferré now serves on the Florida Transportation Commission and heads the Miami Expressway Authority and says this is the future of realistic mass transit in Miami: Buses that act like trains while they’re in the express lanes, but that can drop you off closer to your destination.

“These are systems that are affordable,” Ferré said, “Yeah, it requires tolls on roads. There’s a price for these things.”

"A NEW KIND OF TRAIN SYSTEM"

Here are the current, future and potential express lane projects from FDOT. The way Maurice Ferré put it, the airport provides the runways but the airlines have to provide the planes. Miami-Dade and Broward Transit would have to provide the express buses to utilize the express lanes in place.image

Florida Has a (Bipartisan) Need for Speed!

Reports abound this week of a potential bump to Florida’s 17-year-old maximum speed limit of 70 MPH. Writes the Orlando Sentinel:

A bipartisan contingent of lawmakers wants to allow the state Department of Transportation more leeway to raise speed limits on mostly rural stretches of highways between cities. The goal is to improve traffic flow and safety.

The bill would allow the DOT to boost top speed limits on four-lane interstate highways from 70 mph to 75 mph. Highways with 60- and 65-mph limits could also get 5-mph boosts if the DOT deems it appropriate to improving traffic flow.

The bill passed through the state’s Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday but still needs legislative and gubernatorial approval.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the bill is intended more for Florida’s rural stretches of highway.

There are, according to the Tampa Bay Times, 1,472 miles of Florida interstate with a 70 MPH speed limit. “Most of those miles are in Central and North Florida on Interstate 10, I-75, Florida’s Turnpike, I-95, the Suncoast Parkway and parts of I-4,” the Times writes.

While the intent of the new bill may be to speed up traffic in between major cities, it will also give traffic engineers a chance to reevaluate limits on urban highways and possibly increase 60 and 65 MPH limits by 5 MPH.

Just recently, a stretch of I-95 in Miami-Dade was permitted a 5 MPH speed limit increase — from 55 MPH to 60 MPH.

As a point of reference, the average speed of traffic in the southbound 95 Express lanes last year was 66 MPH from 7-11 PM, according to FDOT data.

That, traffic permitting, an average Express lane driver might be speeding won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s driven on I-95 in Miami-Dade. The fact that it took until September to get the speed limit raised to 60 MPH? Perhaps more shocking.

Traffic engineers use a national standard called the 85th percentile rule to evaluate traffic flow and determine appropriate speed caps. In a report on setting speed limits, the U.S. Department of Transportation describes that metric as “the speed at which 85 percent of free-flowing traffic is traveling at or below.” The report explains:

Setting a speed limit based on the 85th percentile speed was originally based on safety. Specifically, research at the time had shown that traveling at or around one standard deviation above the mean operating speed (which is approximately the 85th percentile speed) yields the lowest crash risk for drivers. Furthermore, crash risk increases rapidly for drivers traveling two standard deviations or more above or below the mean operating speed. Therefore, the 85th percentile speed separates acceptable speed behavior from unsafe speed behavior that disproportionately contributes to crash risk.

Apparently Floridians have particular opinions about how fast they could or should be driving. One of FDOT’s “Frequently Asked Questions” about speed limits is: How do I get a speed limit reviewed on a State Highway? 

The answer: If you feel there is a need to change a speed limit on a state highway, or you have further questions regarding our determination of speed limits, please contact the District Traffic Operations Engineer at your local Florida Department of Transportation office.

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