It’s Thursday afternoon. Non-rush hour. FHP Trooper Joe Sanchez pulls into the northbound I-95 express lanes just north of the 62nd Street exit. He brings his SUV to a stop. His driver door is inches from the concrete median. Express traffic blurs past his passenger window. Technically, he’s on the express lane shoulder.
“See? Can you get out there?” he asks, exasperated. “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 from the public about unchecked speed on I-95 express lanes have flooded Sanchez’s office. His response: FHP is doing what it can, but there are limitations to enforcement.
The 95 Express Project has, indeed, gotten traffic moving — ironically, maybe too well.
The first I-95 express lanes opened in 2008. The goal: to relieve rush-hour congestion that was clogging one of South Florida’s primary roadways. The new lanes required drivers to pay varying electronic tolls to drive in the fast lanes, or so-called “Lexus lanes.” A new lane was added without widening the roadway. That meant the existing inside shoulder, which had been nearly 13 feet, was squeezed to less than 8 feet.
For law enforcement, the tighter shoulders leave officers with two less-than-ideal options: Use one of the few, brief stretches of wider shoulders to stop a motorist or follow a speeding car out of the express lanes, potentially for miles.
“Motorists tend to realize that and say, ‘There’s no way they’re going to stop me here so I can go any speed,’ ” said Sanchez, who is the spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol in Miami-Dade County.
Florida Department of Transportation numbers show the average speed of express-lane traffic for most of the day is between 64 and 66 miles per hour. The speed limit, which is the same for both the express lanes and the general-purpose lanes, is either 55 or 60 miles per hour. That means the average speed of traffic for a significant part of the day is as fast as 11 miles per hour 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 I-95 express corridor was increased from 55 to 60 miles per hour in September. Meitin says FDOT is in the final stages of raising the remaining section to 60 miles per hour.
With the new limit in place, express-lane speeds wouldn’t look quite as bad. The highest speeds are in the I-95 express southbound lanes from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., when traffic averages 66 miles per hour.
“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 the express lanes 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 mile per hour speed limit might make more sense.
“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 I-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 FHP’s Sanchez.
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.
“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 explains that the narrow shoulders were a necessary tradeoff to lurch the congested I-95 back into motion.
When the lanes are “operating better, we usually have less friction; less friction means less accidents,” said Santana. He said it’s still early to be looking for trends, but that total crashes on that stretch of I-95 have not risen since the lane changes. The trend, for the first time, seems to be more damaged cars than injured motorists.
FHP’s Sanchez said he hasn’t seen those stats but points to a 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.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at MiamiHerald.com/insight.