Manatee County officials lobby for change on state roadways.
On Aug. 29, Country Creek resident Larry Luh fielded a call from his teenage son, Matthew, now 17.
He had been in a traffic accident on the way to football practice at Lakewood Ranch High School.
As a parent, Luh was worried, especially when he learned the crash occurred at the intersection of State Road 64 and Pope Road.
“When he told me there were no injuries, that was somewhat comforting, but I could tell in his voice he was concerned,” Luh said.
Both vehicles were totaled.
Two weeks later, two of Matthew’s classmates, Matthew Powers and Chase Coyner, died at the same intersection, spurring an outcry from residents and public officials.
Luh wrote a letter to the Florida Department of Transportation demanding action, suggesting FDOT close off the left turn from westbound State Road 64 onto Pope Road, where his son had pulled into an oncoming vehicle.
FDOT made the improvement Oct. 1, after previously modifying the median opening at the same intersection. But, Luh said, there’s room for more safety improvement, including dropping speed limits on State Road 64.
Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles statistics show that from Jan. 1 to Oct. 26, there have been 78 crashes with 75 injuries and two fatalities on the strip of State Road 64 roughly between Stone Harbour Loop and Dam Road.
During that same period on the stretch of State Road 70 roughly from Lena Road to Verna Road, there have been 99 crashes with 124 injuries and one fatality.
Manatee County District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said she does not want to hear of any more deaths or serious injuries, particularly of students, on those roadways.
“Something has to be done,” she said, noting she’s been in contact with FDOT, the county’s Public Works Department and other officials. “We need to take a strong stance on this and say, ‘No more.’”
Manatee County officials are urging FDOT to install a temporary signal at the intersection of State Road 64 and Pope Road/GreyHawk Boulevard and expedite construction of a roundabout there. It is not scheduled to be built until 2023.
School Board of Manatee County members adopted a resolution Oct. 23 asking for those changes, as well as eliminating visibility obstructions.
Manatee County commissioners also are writing Florida Highway Patrol about increasing trooper presence on the roadways.
Commissioners also want a traffic signal placed at State Road 70 and Verna Bethany Road, where there were two serious crashes Oct. 18. One involved 17-year-old Korin Seyler, who was seriously injured after she turned her vehicle in front of a dump truck. There have been eight crashes near that intersection since January, according to Myakka City Fire Rescue Chief Danny Cacchiotti.
Commissioners said there should be an opportunity for public-private partnerships as new communities develop, and the county should seek out grants or other means by which to get improvements completed faster.
Baugh said speeding on both roadways is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Mill Creek’s Jenny Mulligan witnesses the problem every day.
“It’s so dangerous,” she said. “Everyone needs to pay more attention.”
Lakewood Ranch High School driver’s education instructor Tom Wyar said he believes speed limits in East County should be further reduced.
“In my opinion, driving out east, 60 mph is just too fast,” Wyar said. “When you have trucks hauling tomatoes, trucks hauling produce — if someone pulls out, that’s where the tragedies happen. I find that people don’t follow the speed limits. The kids will not speed in the driver’s ed car. That’s the biggest thing I preach to these kids. Drive the right way. Be mindful.”
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Nick Ambriati regularly patrols State Road 64 and echoed those sentiments. He said the Sheriff’s Office is diligently enforcing traffic laws. When FDOT lowered the speed limit from 60 mph to 50 mph on State Road 64 in October 2017, he stopped a minimum of 25 people per day going 70 mph or faster. There are fewer speeders now, but conditions are still worrisome. He still clocks cars regularly going 20 mph over the speed limit.
“On State Road 64 we have these neighborhoods popping up,” Ambriati said. “We need to have left turn lanes. They have to lower the speed limit again to 40 or 45 mph. You have cross traffic, people pulling out of neighborhoods.”
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sheriff Rick Wells said the shortage of Florida Highway Patrol troopers in Manatee County compounds the problem.
Per state statute, FHP is responsible for working all crashes and traffic enforcement, while the Sheriff’s Office focuses on enforcement, whether on a state or county road. But sheriff deputies in unincorporated Manatee are working more than 100 crashes per month, taking away their ability to proactively patrol neighborhoods and enforce traffic laws. Deputies from patrol and traffic divisions redirect or block traffic, when necessary.
“Sometimes FHP will be two to three hours before they can respond to even a serious crash,” Wells said. “We’re standing by waiting for them.
“When we talk about the growth out east … and we’re at a traffic crash for three hours, then (deputies) are not patrolling. They’re not in the community doing what they should be.”
Sheriff’s Office data show deputies responded to 44 accidents and seven accidents with injuries from Jan. 1 to Oct. 11 on the section of S.R. 64 east of I-75. On State Road 70, they’ve responded to 30 crashes and four crashes with injuries.
FHP spokesman Lt. Greg Bueno said FHP is committed to reducing the number of motor vehicle crashes due to unsafe driver behaviors, and troopers continue to enforce traffic laws.
FDOT spokesman Zachary Burch said FDOT is working on a long-term solution for S.R. 64 and GreyHawk Boulevard/Pope Road, but is thankful there have been no major crashes there since the temporary improvements were installed. A roundabout at Rye Road is under construction.
Burch said on State Road 70, the state is conducting speed and intersection studies for the area around Verna and Verna Bethany to determine if speeds should be adjusted or other intersection improvements are needed.
“We will be installing advanced intersection signs to warn drivers on S.R. 70 that there is an intersection coming up,” Burch said.