City turns to residents to help solve traffic congestion and parking problems

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

The city of Key West has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the last few years hiring experts to find solutions to the parking and traffic congestion problems in Old Town. The latest idea: ask the locals for free.

Key West City Commissioners voted Aug. 15 to form a temporary citizens committee to make recommendations for the “improvement of parking and alleviation of congestion, especially in the Old Town area of the island.” Each commissioner will appoint one person to the committee, which then has six months to develop ideas to solve what has thus far been unsolvable, despite expensive consultants’ reports recommending the city expand public transportation and build multi-million-dollar parking garages.

The committee’s marching orders include reviewing effective traffic congestion strategies in other communities and formulating suggestions on how to encourage public transportation, reduce reliance on personal vehicles and increase parking availability. It is likely to be a difficult job. A proposed bike sharing program aimed at reducing local workers’ use of their cars was shot down by commissioners the same evening as the vote to create the parking group. A proposal to build two new, multi-story parking garages in Old Town was similarly rejected at the commissioner’s June 20 meeting.

But the parking issue goes back even further. A 2011 consultant’s report made nine recommendations on how to alleviate traffic, including improving bike paths and building up to three more parking structures in Old Town. In 2014, commissioners decided not to spend $85,000 on a more in-depth parking garage report, saying the city had already paid for at least four traffic studies in the downtown area and the conclusions were clear: create more parking. But how exactly to do that without angering residents in the proposed garage neighborhoods has so far proved elusive.

The city has made strides on its own, recently embarking on a “Car-Free Key West” campaign that urges people to walk or ride their bikes more often. A free Duval Loop bus shuttle will begin service on Labor Day weekend. And commissioners recently allowed ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to begin operating in Key West.

But a solution to eliminating car congestion, and the attending problem of where to park the streams of vehicles that vie for space in Old Town, has not been found. Some worry that tasking residents to find that Holy Grail may be asking too much. Local resident Richard Talmadge told commissioners that the parking workgroup was “definitely a step in the right direction” but expectations may need to be adjusted.

“This problem isn’t going to take six months. It’s going to take five years” to solve, he said.

Resident John Bigelow had the same concerns. The parking work group needs time to set short, medium and long-term goals. That will take more than the six months allotted, he said.

“The working group, to come up with five solutions that will solve all our problems and let’s see if we can do it in a year is problematic on its face,” Bigelow told commissioners.

The original resolution called for the parking work group to disband in 120 days. But Commissioner Sam Kaufman moved that be extended to 180 days and that the committee also look at alternative transportation alternatives. Commissioner Margaret Romero said the 180 days was agreeable but asking the committee to take on the daunting task of researching alternative transportation was unrealistic.

“I don’t want this [work group] to go on and on and on,” she said. “The narrower focus that is had, the better.”

But Mayor Cates disagreed. “I think parking and alternative transportation go hand in hand,” he said.

The final vote to form the parking and alternative transportation work group was unanimous. Each commissioner now has 30 days to make their individual appointments to the committee.