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.
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.