Hemet Council requests Caltrans relinquish Florida Avenue and stop raised median strip project

Hemet City Council, in a letter to Caltrans, is formally requesting that Florida Avenue, as it runs through the downtown area of Hemet and is now a state highway, be relinquished to the city and halt a planned raised-median strip project.

City Manager Allen Parker was authorized to send out the letter and request at the council’s Tuesday, Jan. 9, meeting.

For almost a year, the Hemet City Council, local business owners on Florida Avenue and Chamber of Commerce members have been at odds with Caltrans who is planning to place a cement median strip along Florida Avenue from Acacia Avenue through the center of town to its city limits at Hemet Street. Caltrans, since Florida Avenue is a state highway, state Route 74, has complete jurisdiction over the maintenance and safety of the roadway and since 2011 had planned to add the median strip to improve the highway’s overall safety as determined by their Multilane Cross Median Collision Monitoring Report.

When the city learned Caltrans was about to start constructing the median strip just over a year ago, city engineers and Florida Avenue merchants were surprised by the revealed design. The city argued they had no say in the Caltrans project, as planned, and if implemented would adversely affect the city’s economic status and create public safety hazards since the city has grown tremendously since the Caltrans collision report was made. The city depends more and more on the main highway through town as traffic continues to increase. The city, as a result, sought to request a new traffic study before any construction on the raised median strip began.

The Caltrans’ plan for the median strip cut off some left turns needed for motorists and suppliers to access stores and businesses and hindered emergency vehicles from doing their duty as they tried to pass in heavy traffic. While Caltrans made some modifications to the plan, it still posed problems to the city engineers, the council, fire and police departments and merchants. Caltrans reminded the city it could do anything it wanted to the roadway since Florida Avenue was a “state highway,” creating even more animosity and demands to halt the project from the council.

In a hastily called meeting with Caltrans officials in December, the council learned from the Caltrans director and District 8 director during the discussion that the agency might consider relinquishing the highway through town to the city, if the city took over its maintenance and public safety responsibilities. If the city formally requested the relinquishment, Caltrans would halt the project plan for six months.

In a letter and Resolution Bill No.18-003, the council made the formal request Tuesday for Caltrans to hold off the project until the city can make its own study on taking over the state highway in its municipal boundaries.

“It is our main street and not just a state highway,” City Councilman Russ Brown said, opening the council discussion on the request. He said he appreciated the opportunity to meet with the Caltrans officials in December who admitted in discussions that driving down Florida Avenue was more like driving down a city’s main street than a state highway. He said the comment opened the door to the possibility the city could take over control of Florida Avenue.

Brown said the Caltrans director said to him, “I am not opposed to relinquishment, and I know that our project will save lives, but it’s not the only option.”

The director told Brown that the public outcry that came from Hemet wanting to halt the project was the strongest of any of the 12 other cities that were facing similar Caltrans raised median projects. He said both Caltrans and the city agree the issue is the “public safety” on SR-74 or Florida Avenue in Hemet.

“We now have an opportunity with proving this and explore that with other viable options,” Brown said.

Parker said there are other options to improve public safety along Florida Avenue, and in the requested six month delay, the city can “take a solid look at what other projections, what kind of traffic can we expect, how is that going to affect the highway, how is that going to affect our ability to and what kind of funds are needed for it. So, it gives us a break as well as the cost alternatives. We can do the study that Caltrans should have done.”

“We have a better plan to make this work for the safety our citizens than Caltrans has for us,” Mayor Michael Perciful said. He said Caltrans in their study was looking only at Highway 74, a singular highway, while the city has to look at many highways and the effect a median strip would have on them. He said if emergency vehicles could not use Florida because it had a median strip, they would have to use the parallel streets, Acacia and Devonshire, which have residential neighborhoods and schools along them, and make it unsafe for children and adults.

With that, the vote was unanimous for forwarding the letter and the resolution, bringing applause from members of the audience.

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