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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Gainesville City Commission responds to traffic safety concerns

Officials are discussing increased pedestrian lighting and road redesigns

Gainesville City Commissioners will meet with Florida traffic officials in a mounting effort to make roads safer after two student deaths less than two months apart on University Avenue.

The City Commission has broken down its efforts into a series of short- and long-term policies. Commissioners believe there are a number of immediate changes that can be made to stretches of the state highway inside the city, such as lowering the speed limit, equipping sidewalks with better lighting and increasing traffic enforcement.

Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said about 15 to 25 pedestrians and cyclists die each year in Alachua County.

“It's a recurring problem, and we have got to get everybody working together on this,” Poe said.

In order to move forward with some of these changes, the commission is wrestling for control over the road with the Florida Department of Transportation.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said many steps to make University Avenue safer for pedestrians will take collaboration with the FDOT, UF, Alachua County Commission and elected leaders at the state level.

“It's horrible to see residents of our community senselessly killed and injured,” Hayes-Santos said. “It's mainly because our roads are not designed for pedestrian safety.”

In the discussions with FDOT to make University Avenue pedestrian friendly, the city is requesting funding to draft a road redesign proposal. Without this initial funding, Commissioner David Arreola said he believes not much can be done.

Being a state highway, Arreola said the road is designed to allow as many cars as possible to travel quickly, which conflicts with bicycle and pedestrian safety. 

“The whole road needs to be redesigned in a way that slows traffic down,” he said.

Arreola is the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization, a joint operation between Gainesville and Alachua County Commissions for transportation planning in and around the city. Both commissions will meet Feb. 22 to discuss safety changes that can be made to state roads and create better crosswalk designs on unmarked crossing areas to decrease jaywalking.

He said the committee is asking that FDOT commits funding to redesigning University Avenue, and in the meantime, lower the speed limit and put up additional light signage on the road. These short-term solutions would not require much funding to carry out, he said.

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“I think that these things could save lives,” Arreola said.

He said he asked made a personal request and sent a formal letter to FDOT District Secretary Greg Evans, who manages Alachua County’s state roads, asking him to attend the Monday meeting.

Evans will send a representative from his office to discusswho will give a presentation on short-term safety upgrades to roads, Arreola said.

“We've gone through all the bureaucratic processes,” Arreola said. “And so now, with this huge community outcry for real change to the safety of this roadway, we're applying more pressure with that process already having been done.”

Hayes-Santos also mentioned reducing University Avenue’s speed limit and lane widths. The road’s current speed limit is 30 mph, but commissioners did not say how much lower a new limit should be. 

Some state roads that run through Gainesville are the same width as I-75, Hayes-Santos said.

“It's no wonder that people drive faster,” he said. “So reducing the lane width, even though it's not making any change other than just lane width, it does scientifically cause people to slow down because it's really a perception thing.”

Hayes-Santos said there are other actions the commission can take that are a step up from smaller measures like a city ordinance that restricts people from standing on medians less than 6 feet wide that passed on Feb. 4. One solution is to upgrade city lighting along poorly lit busy roads. 

At a Feb. 11 meeting, Gainesville City Planner Lawrence Calderon said streetlights being scattered unevenly around the city is partly to blame for the poor lighting on sidewalks.

“That does not cater well for that high-activity pedestrian area,” he said.

The city began replacing its more than 12,000 city streetlights with LED technology after March 2013. As of Feb. 11, GRU has replaced 72% of outdoor lights in city limits with LEDs. GRU chief operating officer Thomas Brown expects the project will be finished by the end of April.

The commission voted unanimously Feb. 11 to have city staff research increasing lighting in dark zones where it is inadequate.

City Commissioner Reina Saco said greater enforcement of traffic laws through the Gator STEP program is a step in the right direction. From Jan. 18 to Feb. 15, GPD issued 349 speeding tickets and 26 careless driving tickets, according to Gator STEP data released by the GPD. 

“Those are all short-term solutions because they’re immediate and maybe the lesson will hold,” Saco said. “I've always thought that you never forget a traffic ticket, ever. But that's a moderately cheap lesson compared to accidentally hitting someone.”

While the commission agrees that road design changes are necessary, what these changes entail isn’t finalized at the moment.

The Gainesville City and Alachua County Commissions will meet with an FDOT representative on Monday at 3 p.m. to discuss traffic safety plans.

Contact Jack Prator at jprator@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @jack_prator.

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Jack Prator

Jack is a UF journalism sophomore covering the Gainesville City Commission. If he's not in a hammock at the plaza he is probably watching the Queen's Gambit for the fifth time. 


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