AVON PARK - It may not be life in the fast lane, but beginning last Tuesday, life has sped up and took some new turns in Highlands County.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) raised the speed limits on U.S. 27 in Avon Park from Lake Isis Drive to the Polk County line with the new speed signs installed Tuesday.
In addition, two of Avon Park's efforts to free up traffic along U.S. 27 have been officially finished and are no longer on Highland County's "pending items list." The $125,000 project, right-turn lanes from west Bell Street and from west Pleasant Street onto U.S. 27, were completed and should increase transportation capacity for both streets.
JoAnn May, communications specialist with the FDOT SWIFT SunGuide Center in Ft. Myers, said the speed limit is now 50 mph from Lake Isis to Alamanda Boulevard. From Alamanda Boulevard to the Polk County line, it's posted 60 mph and those speed limits have been set in both directions.
Since the $12.3 million project to widen the highway from four lanes to six lanes sped up in the summer of 2012, the speed limit was reduced to 40 to 45 mph in the area. At that time, the public was informed by FDOT that when the construction project was completed a speed study would be conducted. Once the project was completed, FDOT engineers looked at the configuration to see how traffic patterns developed in the new driving conditions.
May said traffic operations engineers went to the highway and measured the traffic speed to see at what speeds drivers were traveling. If the speeds met the 85th percentile of the speeds of all drivers, which is approximately the level at which most drivers are traveling, those numbers were used to determine the roadway's design standards to come up with a reasonable speed limit.
"In this case, the speed limits as posted are a bit above those than design would call for, but our engineers recognized that given the nature of the roadway and the way that drivers are using it that 60 mph, it is a reasonable speed for that segment of roadway," May said in an email.
Nell Hays, Highlands County Sheriff's Office public information officer, said drivers just need to be aware of the change and use common sense when speeding up.
"People should be aware that it has changed in that section of the roadway and drive accordingly," she said.
When widening construction began, the speed had been limited due to construction, which included adding turn lanes.
Since being completed between March 2 and March 7, thermoplastic pavement markings were applied, the final step in the highway improvement process.
Avon Park City Manager Julian Deleon said the lanes should facilitate traffic flow during peak demand hours. In addition, he said the Highlands County Sheriff's Office North Division law enforcement headquarters are located near Pleasant Street - an important reason to get the project off the "pending list."
"It is my opinion that adding a turn lane onto U.S 27 is a big deal; this helps with the response timing on emergency timing for calls for service," he said. "The same could be said about west Bell Street with the county's EMS and Avon Park Fire Department being within close proximity to this road. The projects have been completed. We are obviously very pleased with the outcome."
The two projects were funded with impact fees collected from new construction in Avon Park's county district; the projects were requested by the Avon Park City Council and the Highlands County Engineer's Office was lead on the design, permitting and construction supervision.
The work was done despite Highlands County for the fifth year voting in June to suspend impact fees.
Ramon Gavarrete, Highlands County engineer, said although the turns are finished as far as drivers are concerned, there were just final contract retainer invoices to be submitted.
"Everything is finished on the projects, it's good," he said. "For drivers, there will take less time to make right turns and will free up traffic flow."
Deleon said a recent walk-through with the city, county and Florida Department of Transportation on both streets showed no issues needed to still be resolved.