Sally Swartz: Are real changes or just distractions coming from FDOT?

Deposit play money labeled “Martin mobility bucks” in boxes labeled with road projects. Or play a big screen computer game, voting for projects on a hand-held clicker.

Martin County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization gets an “A” for effort in trying to get residents involved in deciding how the state should spend money building roads, bike paths and trails in the county.

But the 25 residents deserve extra credit for braving heavy rain and flooded roads to attend the MPO’s open house at Indian River State College’s Stuart campus this past Wednesday.

The MPO, which includes elected officials from local governments who choose future road projects, recently has been in the public eye after residents decided they don’t like some of its plans for the county.

For the next two months, residents can weigh in on how the Florida Department of Transportation should spend almost $228 million on Martin County roads over the next 25 years.

The agency votes on final plans Dec. 14.

Residents unhappy with plans to six-lane S.R. 76 (Kanner Highway) from Cove to Monterey Road can continue to protest the project or suggest ways to improve it. Many see the proposed concrete jungle entrance off Interstate 95 as out of character for nature-loving Martin.

So far, FDOT’s response has been to threaten to take money away if projects aren’t approved, or to shift responsibility to the county.

Instead, the MPO could create a beautified, landscaped median along all of S.R. 76, suggests former Martin Commissioner Donna Melzer in an email to residents.

If the MPO wants Martin residents to pay for that, the MPO should in exchange take on maintenance of the new Veterans Memorial Bridge, she said, expected to cost $3.8 million for 2015-16. The state maintains other bridges it builds.

Some see other projects, such as a spending millions on Citrus Boulevard, as easing Port St. Lucie traffic but offering little to Martin.

Money also could be spent on safety changes, Melzer suggests, such as overpass sidewalks and bikeways. The changes could help Palm City Elementary and Hidden Oaks Middle School students, who must cross S.R. 714, now being four-laned to link Interstate 95 and the Veterans Memorial Bridge.

Other projects the MPO is considering include four-laning High Meadows Avenue between Interstate 95 and Martin Highway, and extending Willoughby Boulevard north to U.S. 1. Also on the list: a 32-mile path that pedestrians, bicyclers, skateboards and others would share between Lake Okeechobee and Jupiter Island’s Southeast Beach Road.

Residents at the open house, playing the clicker game, decided maintaining existing roads is No. 1 for Martin. They also voted that improving U.S. 1, building sidewalks in areas that don’t have them, and building bike paths and greenway trails should be top priorities.

Another biggie: Providing new bus routes to areas that don’t have service. The “Martin mobility bucks” votes will be gathered at public meetings and tallied before the MPO makes its final choices in December.

A few residents wondered whether the MPO is considering spending money to fix areas that flood in every heavy rain. Or figuring out how climate change will affect future road projects.

Kimley Horn consultant Stewart Robertson said the county, not the MPO, must address flooding, but his firm is  “starting to have tools to look at climate change.”

Residents who didn’t make it to the open house can email comments to the MPO’s [email protected] or to Martin Commissioner Sarah Heard at [email protected]. Residents also can vote on projects at the MPO website, www.martin2040.com or visit its Facebook page, Moving Martin Forward.

Turning spending $228 million into games to gather public opinion isn’t a bad idea. We’ll know in December whether it changes anything, or merely serves as a distraction to stop people from complaining about MPO choices.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post editorial board. Her e-mail address is [email protected] Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Sally Swartz



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