Florida's top transportation official returned this week to Key West, three months after being the target of an outspoken citizenry that unleashed its wrath over the construction and traffic patterns on North Roosevelt Boulevard.
Secretary of Transportation Ananth Prasad enjoyed a much warmer reception Wednesday at the Marriott Beachside Resort, where he assured members of the Key West Chamber of Commerce that the $42 million roadway overhaul is on track for completion by the July 2014 deadline.
"It's been a challenging project," Prasad conceded, though no mention was made of the Aug. 6 town hall meeting that pitted Prasad and representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and The de Moya Group contractor against boulevard business owners, local residents and an outraged City Commissioner Tony Yaniz.
Yaniz was not at Wednesday's luncheon.
"We devised a game plan, implemented it, and it didn't work," Prasad said, likening the plan to the University of Florida's struggling football team. "We came back, heard from business owners and changed the game plan."
That change brought two-way traffic back to the boulevard last month, despite warnings from FDOT engineers that it would hinder rather than help drivers.
But the switch has been largely well received, especially by business owners who blamed Prasad and his team in August for a financial blow they said cost businesses an average of 30 percent of revenues.
"The project is now about 60 percent complete," Prasad said, "and we plan to have most of the lighting finished and the seawall promenade reopened by Christmas. We will finish by July 2014. It's important that we remain nimble and change when things are not going well."
The state ponied up a $2 million incentive for the contractor if it could get two-way traffic back on the boulevard by mid-October, and it did.
"It was money well spent," Prasad said. "When we saw that what we were doing was not working, and was hurting businesses, we changed things."
He emphasized to the audience that he and his team regularly travel the state's roads and highways from Tallahassee to Key West.
"I tell my staff, 'Don't give people an engineering answer, try to view yourself as a user of the roads, not just as the operator.'"
He assured Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber, that upcoming roadwork along Boca Chica Bridge, slated to begin in September, will be done during off-peak hours, and no work will take place during the usual "rush hours" of Lower Keys traffic.
"So, no work between 7 and 9 a.m.?" Panico repeated, receiving assurance from Prasad and FDOT Project Manager Ali Toghiani.
"We're going to do everything possible, from an infrastructure standpoint, to grow Key West and Monroe County," Prasad told the chamber audience.
He acknowledged that health care and education often are considered "sexy" issues, and receive the most attention in Tallahassee.
"But remember, access to good health care and education wouldn't be possible without good infrastructure and roads," he said.
Key West Mayor Craig Cates thanked Prasad for returning to Key West, as he had promised to do once two-way traffic resumed.
"I see a lot of good things going on, and I want to thank you," Cates said.