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Traffic ‘Nightmare at 17th Street’ haunts A1A drivers

STORY BY CASEY STAVENHAGEN (Week of April 6, 2023)

One of the worst traffic jams in island memory left hundreds of South Beach residents fuming last Wednesday when FPL workers installing a pole created a backup on A1A that extended from the 17th Street Causeway intersection all the way south past St. Edward’s School.

“At 11:30 today, I departed the Moorings for a meeting at McKee. I reached 17th and A1A at 12:30," wrote frustrated Moorings resident Wayne Sandlin in an email entitled “Nightmare at 17th Street.”

“When I returned from my meeting two hours later, the same mess was still in effect.”

FPL has routinely been replacing aging power poles up and down A1A to harden against storm damage, but this time the combination of high season, spring break and an overtaxed, two-lane stretch of highway caused the perfect storm.

The stop-and-go traffic backup was exacerbated when St. Ed’s students were dismissed from school for the afternoon and parents joined the seemingly endless line of cars.

“We were not made aware that FPL was replacing power poles on A1A south of 17th Street until we started receiving complaints,” Vero Beach Police Department Capt. Matt Monaco said.

Chief David Currey said the backup was caused by the re-routing of all the northbound traffic into the turn lane – which gets backed up on the average weekday under normal conditions – so drivers had a tough time turning left, and drivers who wanted to go straight across the intersection got caught up in the mess.

“We go out there to take a look at it. People think we can perform magic, but there’s not much we can do,” Currey said. “We had a similar situation a couple of weeks ago on the (Indian River) Boulevard when FPL was working and FDOT was doing work cleaning out a drainage ditch at the same time.”

FPL and FDOT manage the traffic with their own personnel, Currey said. “They send their people, they have people who are trained, they call them ‘flag men’ who set up the cones and re-route and direct the traffic.”

After Vero police became aware of the situation, the department addressed the issue in a “Traffic Alert” on social media around 2:30 p.m. “Florida Power & Light is currently performing power pole construction on SR A1A south of E. Causeway/ 17th St. which is causing traffic to backup on A1A. FPL states that the construction work will be completed today. The only alternative route available is N. Causeway (A1A) located in Fort Pierce,” police said.

By the time a varsity baseball game ended at St. Ed’s, the northbound lane of traffic was moving normally – but even the normal flow of vehicles on that stretch of A1A has been interrupted with construction detours and crews working along a 1.7-mile stretch of road from just north of Castaway Cove to Beachland Boulevard.

The Florida Department of Transportation project, which started in August last year, will continue all summer (weather permitting) with the target completion date sometime this fall.

The $5.6 million project, according to FDOT, involves milling and resurfacing the existing roadway with some widening; installing bike lanes and sidewalk; upgrading drainage, signage, pavement markings, crosswalks and curb ramps; adding signalized pedestrian crossings; and constructing and adding right turn lanes.

The work set to be done during April includes drainage upgrades and road widening along northbound A1A between Jasmine Lane and Banyan, with “around-the-clock” shoulder closures and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. lane closures, according to an FDOT Treasure Coast Traffic Report.

Installation of a signalized pedestrian crossing at Iris Lane will take place in Phase 2, Step B of the project. The same type of crossing is set to be installed at Dahlia Lane as well, though it is not indicated when this will occur.

Meanwhile to the north, Florida City Gas crews have the A1A roadside torn up as they lay natural gas pipelines to meet up with an under-river crossing parallel to the Wabasso Causeway to bring residential gas service to the Sea Oaks area, Indian River Shores and the City of Vero Beach.

The gas-line construction will eventually move south to reach the Ocean Drive and Cardinal Drive business districts, and if the demand warrants it, gas lines will be run as far north as Windsor.

Staff Writer Lisa Zahner contributed to this report.