'An opportunity to right the wrong': Canin Associates recommends Highway 98 retrofit

MATT ALGARIN 654-8448 | @DestinlogMatt
Landscaping buffers are recommended along Hwy. 98. These renderings show the existing roadway and what it could look like in the future.

U.S. Highway 98 needs a makeover.

That was the simple, yet not so easily obtainable, recommendation from Canin Associates during Tuesday night's six-hour Envision Destin workshop.

"U.S. 98, as it stands today, did not score well," said Eliza Juliano, Canin Associates director of urbanism. "It's also dangerous. There were almost 800 crashes in a six-year period."

Tuesday's meeting covered a gamut of topics, including proposed changes to four distinct planning areas in the city — Town Center, Harbor CRA, Crystal Beach, and Holiday Isle — as well as citywide improvements, regulations for vacation rental homes along Holiday Isle and Crystal Beach, and the proposed improvements to Hwy. 98.

Looking at the roadway itself, Juliano told city leaders Hwy. 98 has 33-foot wide medians, which is actually wider than most standards call for. She said narrow — and in some places incomplete — sidewalks, poor bicycle facilities and inadequate lighting also compound issues.

Based on traffic crash data from 2007 to 2013, Juliano said 28 percent of the accidents along Hwy. 98 involved either pedestrians (18 percent) or bicyclists (10 percent).

So what's the solution?

To address the heavy traffic, one solution is to install roundabouts at the major intersections, which would allow through traffic to continually flow. This could be done by reducing the size of the median.

If the median is reduced, this would allow more space to be used for pedestrian traffic along the highway that could be buffered by landscaping for safety.

"It provides a great opportunity for landscaping, not only in the median, but along the side (of the road)," Juliano said.

In total, six roundabouts would be placed along a 1.7-mile stretch of Hwy. 98. Crossing facilities would also be available at signalized mid-block areas.

To reduce speeding, she recommended reducing the width of the actual lanes on the roadway.

Underground utilities was also part of the "Hwy. 98 retrofit" proposed by Canin Associates. Right of way would have to be acquired for the city to bury all utilities.

Overall, Juliano told city leaders "the feedback we've gotten from FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation) is pretty positive." Portions of the proposed improvements would need further studies, Juliano said.

"A lot of their ideas are game changers," City Manager Greg Kisela said of the Orlando-based firm's recommendations for the roadway.

As for the public, the reaction to the proposal was positive Tuesday night.

"One of the things I like the most is this sprucing up of 98," said George Blakesly, a Holiday Isle resident. "The idea of traffic circles is a little bit intimidating to start with, but I've been in cities where they used this principle."

Leigh Moore, from the Howard Group, applauded the focus on pedestrian mobility.

"We feel that making things more walkable, pedestrian friendly is crucial," she said. "Obviously a lot of this needs a lot of engineering work, but it's on the right track."

"The city has the opportunity to right the wrong that has been done in this city," Lockwood Wernet said. "I encourage you to move forward, to change our city."

But not everyone was sold on the roundabout idea.

Councilman Jim Wood told his colleagues he has mixed emotions.

"There is no correlation about roundabouts and less traffic," he said.

While the recommendations/ideas are in place, there is still plenty of work that would have to be done if the retrofit was to take place, such as professional development and engineering and securing funding.