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Sally Swartz: Bureaucracies, like road builders, keep steamrolling along

Martin County residents tangled with the Florida Department of Transportation bureaucracy last week over FDOT plans for an ugly, six-lane highway with concrete noise walls as the entrance to the county from Interstate 95. As usual, FDOT – with the help of its copycat bureaucracy, the localMetropolitan Planning Organization — won.

Residents who live near the State Road 76 (Kanner Highway} route complained first to Martin County commissioners about plans to add two lanes to the four-lane highway. Commissioners sent them to the MPO, a group of county and city elected officials who choose road projects to be built with local, state and federal money.

Residents didn’t realize the project is, as MPO administrator Beth Beltran put it, “a done deal.” Previous MPO members approved the Kanner Highway plans each year for the last seven years. Nothing can stop it now.

Residents told the MPO they’re worried about safety for homeowners and school children, about noise that concrete walls won’t block, and about the ugliness of a road with no landscaping or medians.

“FDOT can provide better options,” former Martin Commissioner Donna Melzer said. “This is not the right direction for Martin County. Slow down and let residents talk about it.”

Environmental lawyer Virginia Sherlock said the project is “unnecessary, too expensive and no traffic counts support the need for it.”

Martin Commissioner Ed Fielding, who lives nearby but is not an MPO member, said the project has slowed over a bidding problem. He urged the group to use the lull to meet with FDOT and craft a better plan.

Six-laning, resident Bob Ernst said, “means less access, less safety and less green.”

Several teenagers from neighborhoods near Kanner Highway presented photos of both landscaped and barren stretches of the road and urged the MPO to choose safe and green.

A big-city design is bound to meet resistance in Martin, where the county slogan is “Enjoy our good nature.” Residents who stop traffic to help a gopher tortoise or a family of sandhill cranes cross a busy road are not fans of six-lane highways.

After several 3-3 MPO votes when opponents tried to remove the Kanner Highway project from an approval list, Stuart Commissioner Troy McDonald and Sewall’s Point Commissioner Vinny Barile changed their votes, leaving Martin Commissioner Sarah Heard the sole holdout.

“You didn’t do a good enough job reaching people,” Heard told the MPO staff. “FDOT has not considered alternatives. There has to be a way residents can change this project rather than be victimized by it.”

The state pays $23.6 million to six-lane Kanner between Lost River and Monterey roads. The county must pay an extra $2 million to move utilities. The state pays for landscaping if the county promises to maintain it.

MPO administrator Beltran, a former FDOT employee, said the Kanner Highway project already is in the FDOT budget and will be built even if residents or the MPO object. A “no” from the MPO could mean cuts in future money from the state.

Beltran said she “got very frustrated” with people who didn’t understand that. Residents should have aired their complaints 10 years ago, or even two or three years ago, she said, when the FDOT approved money for the project.

Too bad those teens worried about their neighborhood were little kids a decade ago.

The MPO listens to its three citizen advisory boards, Beltran said. County and city elected officials appoint some members. With a few exceptions, though, members are a “Who’s Who” of local business and development representatives.

Beltran said the Kanner Highway project should serve as a lesson to residents and make them get more involved in planning roads for 2040.

What can be done? Elected officials could choose residents from neighborhoods near proposed projects to serve in advisory groups. MPO members could stand up for residents, rather than lying down in front of the FDOT steamroller.

The MPO staff could quit using the FDOT’s impenetrable bureaucracy as a model and try harder to tell residents what’s  happening when their comments can make a difference.

What about the ugly design and the concrete walls? Too late, Beltran said. Done deal.

Pretty harsh. Score one for the bureaucrats, zero for residents.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is sdswartz42@att.net. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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