Miami-Dade County

Cyclist’s death in Key Biscayne spotlights needed road protections

Walter Reyes
Walter Reyes

To the hundreds of cyclists who routinely ride to Key Biscayne for fun and exercise, this week’s tragic news hit like the all-too-familiar reprise of a nightmare: A driver police say was drunk, fresh off a night of partying, struck two cyclists on Crandon Boulevard early in the morning, killing one and seriously injuring the other, before taking off.

The death of cyclist Walter Reyes, 51, the CFO of real-estate firm Keyes Company, was the third hit-and-run cycling fatality on the road to Key Biscayne — the most popular bike route in Miami-Dade County — in five years, and the fourth fatal collision between a cyclist and a car on the roadway since 2006.

Each time, county officials have pledged to make extensive safety improvements to Crandon Boulevard, which runs through Crandon Park on Key Biscayne, and the adjoining Rickenbacker Causeway, which connects mainland Miami, Virginia Key and Key Biscayne.

But three years after the hit-and-run death of triathlete and business executive Aaron Cohen on the causeway’s William Powell Bridge set off a public clamor over the roadway’s perils for cyclists, those promised improvements have been slow in coming and only partially implemented.

Advocates are calling for a greater sense of urgency from county officials. Some contend the measures promised or now in place, while welcome, won’t do enough to protect cyclists, runners and pedestrians from speeding, careless or impaired motorists along the high-speed road.

“History is repeating itself,” said cyclist and lawyer Eli Stiers, part of a group led by prominent Miami architect Bernard Zyscovich that’s pushing a Rickenbacker redesign to separate motorists from cyclists and runners on the roadway with some sort of physical barrier. “Clearly what they’re doing is not enough. It is pure insanity what’s going on on the key. You have to make the roadways safer.”

On Thursday, Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes both keys, vowed to push for swift action to implement interim safety measures — including temporary trial barriers to protect bike lanes — that he says should be relatively inexpensive to complete.

Because county administrators say they don’t have enough money to undertake more-ambitious improvements along the lines of Zyscovich’s plan, Suarez said he’s also calling for an increase of 25 cents in the Rickenbacker toll to help fund those. He will ask the county commission to take up the proposal at its next meeting, Suarez said.

Suarez said he would also support “a speed diet” to reduce what he says are often grossly excessive speeds by motorists along the roadway. That could include lowered speed limits, design changes to slow cars and perhaps enforcement through speed cameras, he said.

“To me, this is now an emergency,” Suarez said after huddling with Stiers, Zyscovich and county administrators to discuss the plan in a meeting that had been scheduled before Wednesday’s fatal collision. “The causeway should be a showcase.”

County administrators say safety upgrades to date have been substantial, though they concede lots more remains to be done.

The principal accomplishment, at a cost of millions of dollars: taking advantage of the emergency reconstruction last year of the Bear Cut Bridge, which connects Virginia Key and Key Biscayne, to install generous paths in both directions for cyclists and people on foot. That includes marked, broad on-road bike lanes for fast road cyclists, as well as a wide, striped pathway behind a low protective concrete barrier for casual riders and people on foot.

The county also recently completed a separate paved path on the north side of the causeway for casual cyclists and runners that connects MAST Academy to Bear Cut Bridge, linking up with an existing trail to Key Biscayne through Crandon Park. The new path is similar to the existing, separated path that runs along the beaches on the south flank of the Rickenbacker.

Cycling and running advocates applaud those initiatives, but they say the rest of the Rickenbacker and adjoining Crandon Boulevard remain a dangerous mess all the way from the Miami mainland to the entrance to the village of Key Biscayne. Only painted bike-lane stripes separate cyclists sharing the road from motorists along the roughly six-mile length of asphalt to Key Biscayne.

Speed limits along most of that distance are 40 and 45 mph, which advocates say is much too fast to be safe for cyclists sharing the roadway. Those high speeds are especially absurd and dangerous on relatively narrow Crandon Boulevard, which bisects Crandon Park and is officially designated as a park road, they say.

And motorists routinely flout those posted limits. As part of the causeway safety upgrades, the county posted several flashing warning signs advising motorists of their speed. Casual observation of the signs suggests that many if not most autos and trucks on the Rickenbacker are speeding at any given time, some by substantial margins.

The gist of the problem, advocates and planners say, is that the Rickenbacker and Crandon were designed and built as highways to speed automobile traffic to and from Key Biscayne. But in the past decade the picturesque corridor has also become one of the most popular recreational areas in South Florida, attracting thousands of runners, triathletes and road cyclists as well as casual visitors and beachgoers, particularly on weekends.

And while cyclists are struck and killed in other areas of the county — Miami-Dade consistently ranks among the five worst metro areas in the nation in bike-fatality rates — the Key Biscayne route deserves special attention because it’s the biggest draw in the region for cyclists who have few other good options for steady, non-stop riding, advocates say.

It should also be, they contend, relatively straightfoward to make it a safe environment for all users, and one of the premier recreational attractions in the country.

“It is ground zero for cycling enthusiasts in Miami,” Stiers said. “Everyone who cycles in Miami rides on the Rickenbacker at some point. Everyone rides on Key Biscayne. It’s a popular destination, with beautiful scenery, and more and more people are drawn to it all the time.

“And it’s also one of the most dangerous places to ride. You have a roadway that’s an anachronism, something built in the ’60s that looks like a highway and is not conducive for the surrounding environment.”

The Zyscovich plan would reduce the Rickenbacker roadway, which in places widens from two to three lanes, to a consistent two lanes, and devote the extra space in each direction to a separated bikeway.

Stiers and Zyscovich say nothing illustrates the need for extensive improvements more than Wednesday’s deadly collision. The spot where it happened lies beyond the causeway and thus the Zyscovich plan area, and calls for a barrier to protect the bike lane, they say.

Reyes and a cycling companion, Coral Gables attorney Henry Hernandez, 40, were riding at about 5:22 a.m. in the bike lane on Crandon Boulevard where it bends south toward the village of Key Biscayne, just past the Crandon Park Marina.

They were hit by a Jetta driven by key resident Alejandro Alvarez, a college student who told police he was heading home after a night out at a Miami Beach club when he struck the riders. Alvarez, who drove away before returning to turn himself in, has been charged with DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of an accident.

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