Carlos Lora doesn’t care what the electronic toll sign for 95 Express says. Fifty cents, $6.00, $10.50 -- it doesn’t matter. After a long day at work as a South Beach condo manager, he’s getting in his Mini Cooper to go home to Hollywood Beach, and he's using the fast lanes to get there.
“And even if it says ‘closed,’ I’m guilty of still jumping on,” Lora says.
An internal report from the Florida Department of Transportation shows more and more drivers are flouting bright-yellow “CLOSED” signs and piling into the 95 Express lanes when they’re supposed to be temporarily shut down. The report shows that in February of 2013, traffic only dropped 15 percent when the lanes were supposed to be closed.
FDOT closes the express lanes for repairs, debris cleanup, broken-down vehicles and accidents. But there’s no gate blocking them and no barriers to getting in, just the word “CLOSED” brightly displayed where the cost of entry would normally show up.
According to the most recent data from FDOT, 95 Express was closed 15 times for planned construction in May and 176 times for “non-recurring events” that lasted an average of 16 minutes.
“Typically whenever it's ‘closed’ it’s because one lane is closed for an accident,” says Lora, “and after that I basically feel like I got a free ride.”
Rory Santana, who oversees 95 Express for FDOT, admits there’s not much to stop drivers from getting in but says it’s a serious safety issue, like drivers who use the emergency shoulder to speed past traffic jams.
“You could run the shoulder and get ahead of everybody,” Santana says. “You might get away nine times and one time you’ll hit somebody or some debris. Alright, was it worth it?”
FDOT worries for the safety of the Florida Highway Patrol troopers and Road Rangers charged with helping clear accidents and break-downs from the express lanes. In 2006, a Road Ranger was hit and killed in St. Petersburg when a car drove through a lane closure. And just last month, a stretch of 95 was officially named for FHP Trooper Kimberly Ann Herd, Florida's first female trooper killed in the line of duty.
During a recent interview, Santana played a video recorded the morning of Sept. 3. A vehicle broke down in the express lanes somewhere north of Northwest 75th Street. Three Road Rangers are set up to deal with the line of oncoming vehicles, which Santana says had to drive past at least one electronic sign reading “CLOSED.”
Among the vehicles were at least two county buses. Santana says he’s seen both Broward County Transit and Miami-Dade County Transit buses use the lanes when they’re supposed to be closed.
BCT did not respond to repeated request for comment. Karla Damian, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Transit, says drivers are instructed to obey the signs but there are times the 40 and 60-foot buses simply can’t change lanes fast enough to avoid the closed lanes.
“I mean, we try to go with the safer option,” says Damian. “That is always our priority.”
One of the problems with stopping drivers from ignoring the “CLOSED" sign is how the sign itself is displayed.
“That sign that says 'CLOSED' is not a regulatory sign,” says Lieutenant Michael Wilfong, who coordinates the Florida Highway Patrol for 95 Express. “The sign has to be black and white to be a regulatory sign, so there’s no real enforcement of that request to not go in that lane.”
In other words, the electronic signs tell drivers the lanes are closed in the wrong colors. Black and white means that’s an order. Yellow lights on a black background means it’s a suggestion.
Mark Wilson, a 30-year FDOT veteran who oversees statewide traffic operations, says the only electronic sign option was yellow on black when they built the express lanes.
Wilson says all future express lanes will have full-color electronic displays -- the kind of thing you're used to seeing at a baseball game -- so officials can tell drivers when lanes are closed, with black and white signs. The plan is to eventually retro-fit 95 with the same kind of signs and then crack down on drivers who still ignore the closure.
“We’re hoping that, with education and increased enforcement, that motorists will start obeying better,” Wilson says, “and if not then we’ll have to look at putting gates in.”
Gates are a less-than-ideal solution because they take up room in an already squeezed set of lanes. But Carlos Lora, the Mini Cooper-driving sign ignorer, says that’s what it would probably take to convince him to stay away.
“Those would physically inhibit you from taking the express lanes,” he says. “[With a sign] nothing’s going to blow my tires. Nothings going to physically stop me.”