Lawmakers call for I-95 express lane poles to come down in Miami-Dade County

FHP troopers say shrunken shoulders make it impossible for them to do jobs

By Jeff Weinsier - Investigative Reporter

MIAMI - Some South Florida lawmakers are calling for the Florida Department of Transportation to make immediate changes to the Interstate 95 express lanes in Miami-Dade County, including removing the plastic poles.

"You have to take the poles out," state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said. "I think the flexible poles create a dangerous condition. They create a false sense of security, and they just don't work."

State lawmakers are taking action after a recent Local 10 News investigation that exposed flaws in the express lanes.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers said they can't do their jobs.

The plastic poles that separate express lanes from general purpose lanes do nothing to stop dangerous "lane diving."

"This is one of those cases where immediate change needs to happen," state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, who is also head of the Miami-Dade County Legislative Delegation, said.

The latest fatality on the I-95 express lanes in Miami-Dade County happened earlier this month. Aledys Llorens, 28, of Hialeah, was on his motorcycle in the express lanes when a driver caught in traffic cut between the plastic poles into his path. His body was thrown over the wall into the southbound lanes.

"How much loss does it take before you fix something that needs to be fixed?" Trooper Bill Smith said. "Does it take one life? Ten lives? Twenty lives? The life of a police officer or trooper? What does it take to address the problem?"

Smith has been a trooper for 32 years and is president of the Police Benevolent Association's FHP chapter.

Records show troopers have been called to more than 12,000 crashes in the express lanes in Miami-Dade County in the past three years.

When the FDOT added express lanes, it shrunk the shoulder, leaving no room for troopers to pull someone over and no room for drivers to change a tire.

"Making a traffic stop out here, for me and for every other officer, in my opinion, it's dangerous," Trooper Joe Sanchez said.

Sanchez said he has, at times, been forced to stand in traffic after stopping someone in the express lanes.

Smith believes there's a good reason no one is putting the pedal to the metal for a fix.

"It's unfortunately about the almighty dollar," Smith said.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers say they can't do their jobs in the express lanes.

According to the latest monthly operations report available, the express lanes in Miami-Dade County generated $2.6 million in February. That brings the total generated by express lanes to $130 million.

State Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, was told by the FDOT that a two-year study needs to be done before any changes are made. After that, she said, plans would need to be drawn up and approved.

"That could take from seven to 10 years," she said. "I don't see it being acceptable."

Diaz de la Portilla said something needs to be done sooner rather than later.

Many believe nothing will change because the FDOT is making too much money charging people to use the express lanes.

"It's not money that they need," Diaz said. "If people are in harm's way because of this, that money can be thrown away and we can continue with the money we are pumping in the system already."

Diaz said the FDOT's budget for road improvements for 2016-17 is $10 billion, and the money generated in the express lanes is a small blip.

"We will continue to pressure them to move as quickly as possible," Diaz said. "Clearly, it is an unacceptable situation as it now."

The FDOT sees things differently.

"They are working well," FDOT spokeswoman Tish Burgher said. "The goal is to get people to drive 45 mph, and we are achieving that goal."

Burgher said there are no plans to remove the poles.

"If people obey the law and drive the speed limit, it is perfectly safe," she said.

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