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East County Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2019 1 year ago

Tragedy sparks year of change in Manatee County

State, local officials look for ways to speed up safety improvements following teenagers' deaths.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

The Powers household is quieter than it used to be.

Twelve-year-old Katie Powers misses how her oldest brother, Matthew, used to shout excitedly while playing Xbox games against

friends and used funny voices to talk to the family’s cats, Tigger and Lea.

“It’s a little lonely,” she said.

The memories are fond ones, and a year later, Katie; her 14-year-old brother, Robert; and her parents, Dan and Rebecca Powers are dealing with life as best they can. They were happy when Manatee County commissioners renamed baseball Field 1 at Lakewood Ranch Park the Matthew Ryan Powers Memorial Field on Sept. 10.

It lets them know Matthew won’t be forgotten in the community. Since 15-year-old Matthew and his 17-year-old friend Chase Coyner died in a Sept. 15, 2018, accident at the corner of Pope Road and State Road 64, a lot has changed.

Local residents and officials knew the intersection was dangerous but could do little because it was a state-owned roadway. The accident resulted in a public outcry, including from Manatee County commissioners and Manatee County School Board members, who asked the state for a temporary signal at the intersection and to speed up construction of a roundabout planned there.

“Finally, it was like the last straw,” Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said. “It was like, ‘How many more lives do we have to lose before something is done?’ I think we all felt that. It ended up everybody was coming together and pushing to get something done.”

Since the accident, the Florida Department of Transportation has taken several steps to improve safety, first by modifying the traffic flow at the Pope Road/Greyhawk Boulevard intersection with S.R. 64, so westbound motorists could not turn left to go south on Pope from S.R. 64. It modified the GreyHawk Landing median opening, reduced the speed limit in the area, added signs and pavement markings and sped up construction of a roundabout at Pope Road/Greyhawk Boulevard from fiscal year 2023 to 2020.

It also will add a signal at the intersection of 117th Street East at S.R. 64, which Dan Powers said is similar to the Pope Road intersection.

“Everybody’s thrilled about that,” he said. “It’s a horrible intersection.”

FDOT spokesman Brian Rick said the department is working on the signal at 117th Street East and roundabouts at Rye Road and Pope Road/Greyhawk Boulevard, as well as installing speed-feedback devices along the corridor.

Dan Powers said the transportation changes have been bittersweet. He’s happy FDOT is making roads safer but wishes it had been done sooner, so Matthew and Chase might not have died.

“It gives us a little bit of solace,” Dan Powers said.

Dan Powers said he is most excited about the work state Rep. Tommy Gregory (R-District 73) is doing to expedite safety-related transportation improvements. When the Legislature reconvenes in January, Gregory wants to present ways to cut away “red tape,” so infrastructure improvements, such as those planned for the S.R. 64 corridor, don’t have to wait until safety is already a problem. He has asked FDOT and local government officials to tell him what issues they see as causing delays from a legislative standpoint.

“The major problems are statutory and regulatory regulations on the FDOT and money,” Gregory said.

Gregory and his staff are poring through the state’s tax code to understand its nuances to see what opportunities exist for change.

He wants to look at mandatory spending requirements — for example, the first 42 cents of $1 go toward health care, and the next 27 cents go to education out of Florida’s $91 billion budget — and compare it against financial needs for improving dangerous intersections, such as at Verna and Verna Bethany roads at State Road 70.

“What we’re stuck with, then, is looking at the next 31% of the budget,” Gregory said. “We know what we need to do. Everybody who lives in East County knows S.R. 70 should be widened farther and probably should be four lanes across the state. We know we need more and bigger roads.

“We either have to shift [money] around within our budget or find ways to build public-private partnerships to build roads for cheaper.”

Gregory said with more than 800 people moving to Florida a day, the need for safe, quality roads will only increase.

“The budget is finite,” Gregory said. “But roads, I believe, are a fundamental responsibility of a government and one of the things a government can do well. We don’t have enough resources going to FDOT to keep up with that level of immigration to the state of Florida.”

Gregory said transportation and safety were the No. 1 issues he heard when he and his family knocked on 15,000 doors while campaigning for public office last year and at town hall meetings he hosted. Most of the concerns related to safety and congestion on the area’s major east-west corridors, such as S.R. 64 and S.R. 70.

“That’s why I’m focused on it,” Gregory said. “We have to do the tedious work of addressing what is actually a real problem government should be trying to solve.”

Rick said FDOT monitors and reviews roadways for potential safety improvements through the use of crash data analysis. He said drivers need to be focused on safety as well. 

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