Speeding Drivers and Falling Home Prices Print
Written by José Pérez - Special to the BT   
April 2012

One solution to both problems? It’s a question being asked in El Portal

Pix_for_CommNews_El_Portal_4-12As afternoon shadows lengthened with the setting sun in the hamlet of El Portal this past February 22, Claudia Hessel was out for a leisurely stroll with her two children and their two dogs. Then she heard an approaching automobile.

“The car came from my back,” she wrote in an e-mail later that evening, “and I could see the car coming at a high speed.”

Hessel sent that message to El Portal village officials and others. In it she issued a call for the village and Miami-Dade County to install “speed humps or any other residential traffic-control device...for our own protection.”

Hers was not the first plea for “traffic calming” measures in tiny El Portal, population 2325. According to village manager Jason Walker, complaints date back to 2007. That’s when he wrote to Muhammed Hasan, chief of Miami-Dade County’s traffic engineering division, requesting “a traffic study to determine if speed bumps [were] warranted.” The county, which has responsibility for most local roadways, agreed to conduct a study.

The letter to Hasan was prompted by response requests from residents of El Portal’s idyllic Sherwood Forest neighborhood to address mounting problems with drivers speeding through their quiet streets in order to dodge Miami’s ubiquitous traffic snarls.

In the past, it wasn’t particularly difficult for cities to have speed bumps or other traffic-calming devices installed as safety measures. But several years ago, Miami-Dade County officials, alarmed at the rising number of street closures throughout the county, decided that municipalities should rigorously justify such moves.

Hasan got back to Walker in January 2008 and explained the testing that the county’s Public Works Department had completed. Not all of the streets studied were in Sherwood Forest. They included NW 2nd Avenue between NW 86th and 91st streets, NW 86th Street between N. Miami Avenue and NW 3rd Avenue, and in Sherwood Forest, NE 85th and 86th streets from NE 2nd Avenue to NE 4th Avenue Road, near El Portal Village Hall (see map).

For concerned residents, the results were not encouraging. None of the streets met the “minimum criteria established for the installation of speed humps.” In short, there just were not enough cars going by (tortoise or hare) to merit any measures.

However, Hasan gave El Portal a second shot: If the village hired a reputable company to conduct a private traffic study, and if that study bolstered assertions that traffic in Sherwood Forest had become a hazard, then the county would allow the installation of speed bumps.

So El Portal did just that, hiring the Coral Gables firm of David Plummer and Associates for what was, in effect, a second opinion. In November 2009, Plummer and Associates delivered its study. The results? “None of the residential streets studied meets the threshold” required by the county to even consider traffic-calming devices.

That verdict was not only disheartening to those advocating for speed bumps, it was quite surprising -- at least to one longtime resident, Auta Davis.

A homeowner in Sherwood Forest since the late 1980s, Davis tells the BT that, during the study, some neighbors who favored traffic-calming measures drove their vehicles up and down the streets in an effort to spike the numbers, apparently to no avail.

Despite the two studies, Walker sought to help Sherwood Forest residents feel safer while walking their streets. Village police set up speed traps, but came back empty-handed after several hours spent watching minimal automobile traffic.

The speed limit in the area was lowered to 20 miles per hour. The village anted up a few thousand dollars to pay for a radar trailer that flashed the posted limit and actual speed of drivers approaching it. There was even talk of adding sidewalks where none now exist.

Walker also continued to press Miami-Dade County for permission to install at least a few speed bumps. However, not only were the statistics stacked against him, so were recent studies that raised serious questions about speed bumps.

For example, in a 2006 memorandum to the county commission, county manager George Burgess wrote that speed bumps “reduce the speed of emergency vehicle response times substantially.” This weighed heavily on the minds of Auta Davis and her husband. They are retired, and she expressed fears about what delayed response time could mean if something bad happened to them -- a house fire or worse.

Burgess also cited data that showed an unexpected and significant rise in accidents after the installation of speed bumps. In addition, other studies noted damage to cars that frequently have to cross over the bumps.

Warnings aside, Walker’s work finally paid off when, just seven days after Claudia Hessel circulated her e-mail complaint, he received word that the county had relented and agreed to allow El Portal to install speed bumps after all.

The elation was short-lived. No sooner had the village manager spread the good news than some Sherwood Forest residents declared that speed bumps alone would not suffice. One of them, Hessel herself, now says flatly: “They won’t work.”

So what would work? For Hessel, the answer is clear: Close off access to Sherwood Forest from busy NE 2nd Avenue -- erect a permanent barricade at the avenue’s intersection with NE 86th Street.

If Walker or anyone else at El Portal Village Hall is frustrated by this sudden escalation of the situation, no one is showing it. “The issue is speeding,” Walker says coolly. “We think that we have adequately addressed that issue.”

Auta Davis would seem to agree. She says she spends most of her days outside in her garden, in full view of all who come and go along the streets at the center of this unexpected controversy. Though she dislikes speeders, she welcomes visitors, and she is bothered by what she calls a lack of “civic mindedness” on the part of a few relatively recent arrivals to the community, and by their sense of “entitlement.” Recalling the charms of Sherwood Forest that compelled her and her husband to buy a house here almost a quarter-century ago, Davis says she wants to “let everybody enjoy it.”

Perhaps something more than entitlement, or even a desire for safe streets, is at work in some parts of Sherwood Forest. Hessel, for one, broaches that possibility when she explains to the BT that her home has lost a great deal of value over the past few years, having dropped from approximately $500,000 to about half that amount.

Could street closures provide compound benefits, enhancing both safety and property values?

According to Susan Truzenberg, a real estate broker, the answer is unequivocal: Yes.

Truzenberg works in Coconut Grove, a community whose lush tropical ambiance and narrow, winding streets are similar Sherwood Forest. She does not live in El Portal and has no commercial interests there. Still, it’s easy for her to answer the street-closure question. On a scale of one to ten, she says, the benefit to housing prices would be at least an eight.

With hard-won speed bumps in El Portal still a work in progress, it’s unclear when, or if, village officials will tackle the issue of street closures as a means to boost housing values. It’s even less clear whether the county would entertain such an idea.

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