ISLAMORADA -- The season for the busiest Founders Park festivals is coming soon, and the message from local officials is expect delays.
"There's just such an influx of people and traffic at that point of time," said Capt. Corey Bryan, who heads up the Islamorada sector of Monroe County Sheriff's Office. "On top of the season, now you're bringing people in [for events]. It's almost impossible."
The Upper Keys Rotary Club's Gigantic Nautical Flea Market, annually the biggest event at Founders Park, will take place Feb. 23 and 24.
Woofstock Music Fair follows on March 16. The smaller BayJam music fest is April 7. The event season ends with the two-day Florida Keys Island Fest on April 13 and 14.
U.S. 1 traffic tie-ups during the Nautical Flea Market, Woofstock and Island Fest drew several complaints last spring, leading village officials and Bryan to ponder new traffic control options.
Bryan said he has been able to make two changes for this year's events. The Florida Department of Transportation has agreed to only open the Snake Creek drawbridge hourly while the festivals are in progress, rather than every 30 minutes. That should at least ease northbound delays. In addition, electronic signs will be stationed along the Overseas Highway alerting motorists about the events.
Other options that were discussed by officials during a Village Council meeting last spring haven't proven to be workable, Bryan said.
Perhaps the most substantial of those was a suggestion to divert traffic on event days onto the Old Highway, which parallels U.S. 1, as it passes Founders Park -- the idea being that it would put an end to the frequent traffic stops for pedestrians who park on the Old Highway and cross U.S. 1 to reach the festivals.
But Bryan said his crew tested a similar diversion during an auto accident in the late spring and it didn't work. U.S. 1 would still bottleneck at the points where vehicles are diverted onto the old road, he said. A secondary problem would come in dealing with departing parked cars as they attempted to back into traffic on the Old Highway.
Bryan said he also investigated positioning a portable traffic light on U.S. 1 in front of Founders Park. But that proved to be too expensive, and there wasn't a guarantee it would solve the backups.
One final traffic control concept, either eliminating or restricting parking in the median separating the Old Highway and U.S. 1, lies in the village's hands. But a measure like that could hurt attendance at the events
Village Manger Ed Koconis said he hasn't ruled out that option, though he didn't sound very enthusiastic about it either during an interview last week, noting that recent FDOT beautification work in the median has already reduced parking availability.
"We'll look at that. But they've already lost spaces," he said.
For the largest event, the Gigantic Nautical Flea Market, Koconis said the biggest traffic-control step the village plans to take is to encourage the use of the shuttle bus that the event's sponsor provides continuously from the Coral Shores High School parking lot, a few miles north of Founders Park.
"Rotary flea market, it's going to be congested," the village manager acknowledged.