Publisher’s Note: This is the first in a series of transportation-related articles based on the work of Tampa Bay Next.
“Census: Tampa Bay shows fourth highest population growth in nation,” read a Tampa Bay Times headline from March. The result? An additional 58,000 new residents plus gridlock, traffic backups on interstates and streets so routine, you can set your watch by them. Accidents and injuries aren’t limited to vehicles. At least one pedestrian or bicy- clist is killed each week.
As metro areas experience record growth, their transportation systems creak under the weight. Government entities scramble to keep pace with solutions, submitted or underway. Pinellas County tried pushing for more robust bus service and light rail via the Greenlight Pinellas referendum, which failed at the polls here in 2014.
In the wake of that defeat, Florida Dept of Transportation (FDOT) has been working with advocacy groups to prioritize a host of projects around greater Tampa Bay, utilizing a variety of federal, state and local funding. A key element in this effort is community outreach, as at a November transportation panel meeting hosted by the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber in Madeira Beach.
FDOT and area agencies such as transit authorities, county commissions and metropolitan planning organizations are examining more than 55 transportation plans developed over the past 30 years. They seek to identify bay area corridors most in need of help, with an eye on fixes with the best chances for federal funding as well as being innovative projects to be included in a feasibility plan complete by October.
FDOT’s outreach is part of Tampa Bay Next, a program to modernize the area’s transportation infrastructure, which agency liaison Stephen Benson describes as, “a process, a conversation in the community, on ways we can modernize transporta- tion infrastructure, prepare for the future and embrace innovative technology.”
At nearly 1 million residents, Pinellas is the second most populated county of seven within the Tampa Bay region behind Hillsborough. This local density blurs county lines, dictating that transportation planning takes a cooperative regional approach, which isn’t always easy. Benson identified key elements in need of improvements in Pinellas, including interstate modernization, transit and bicycle/pedestrian facilities. Projects in the pipeline are at various stages and several are in southern Pinellas.
The drawbridge linking Isla del Sol with Tierra Verde on the Pinellas Bayway will be replaced by a two lane, high-level fixed bridge. Design features include hammerhead piers, dolphin artwork, decorative lighting, biking/walking trails and a traffic round-about at Madonna Boulevard. Construction begins next summer with a project cost of $52 million and completion in 2022. The Cross Bay Ferry linking the St. Petersburg and Tampa downtowns is now set to resume service in July, 2018 after winning an FDOT grant of $438,000. Its six-month trial ended in April and mixed reviews postponed its return.
Direct PSTA bus service connecting downtown St. Pete and the Gulf beaches is planned via Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The limited-stops, express line will use First Avenues north and south, arc down through South Pasadena and terminate on Gulf
Boulevard by the Don CeSar resort. Longer articulated buses, which have a pivot joint allowing the vehicle to turn more sharply, will operate in dedicated lanes, using branded BRT stations with wheelchair access and rapid boarding. If funding is approved, service begins in 2021.
Pedestrian and bike improvements are being done to accommodate the beach population which triples between October and April according to WTSP. Between 2013 and 2016, 72 pedestrians were hit and injured along Gulf Boulevard and 10 were killed, making Tampa Bay the second deadliest place in the nation for walkers.
In addition Gulf Boulevard is the highest traveled north-south bike route in Pinellas County, second only to the Pinellas Trail according to Benson. “The FDOT has been trying to improve bike and pedestrian safety on Gulf Boulevard for a long time.” Efforts along the 15 miles of this state-owned roadway running through eight communities reflect this concern. A 2015 study called for enhancing existing bike lanes by means of improved signage and green paint at “conflict points,” plus adding new lanes with a goal of a con- tinual bike facility. This was completed this past October at a cost of more than $857,500 paid entirely by federal funds.
Those efforts can be seen at the intersection of Gulf Boulevard with First Street East in Treasure Island near Caddy’s, the intersection with 104th Avenue in Treasure Island by Publix, and the stretch along John’s Pass Village in Madeira Beach. This month, work begins on adding three pedestrian crossings along Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach, at 37th and 71st Avenues and Blind Pass Road. Completion is expected by mid-2018.
Results are now being evaluated, but Madeira Beach resident Ellen Lamparter didn’t wait to voice her views at the meeting. “I live here on Gulf Boulevard. I’m from London, so I’m a proponent of walking. Pedestrian behavior here is appalling. People think the turn lane in the middle of the road is a safe place to stand. A lot of people have stopped pushing the light for the flashing bea- con and just walk across the crosswalk. Traffic is increasing dramatically, so we’re afraid to walk across Gulf Boulevard. The number of people killed here is quite frightening.”
The FDOT hopes to change that. For more information go to www.tampabaynext.com.