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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Waldo Road poses threat to Gainesville’s homeless pedestrians

A total of 38 pedestrians and bicyclists were hit in the last five years

Graphic by Alex Brown
Graphic by Alex Brown

High speeds on Waldo Road in Gainesville turn crossing four lanes into a treacherous journey.

Twenty-one pedestrians and 17 bicyclists were hit on the state road from January 2016 to March 2021, according to data from the Gainesville Police Department. Three additional pedestrians were hit in the parking lot of the Circle K at 20 NE Waldo Rd during the same time frame. 

Eight pedestrians and bicyclists died in the crashes. Seven more suffered incapacitating injuries — wounds that kept them from doing normal activities. 

The road poses a specific threat to Gainesville’s homeless population.

Executive Director Jon DeCarmine leads GRACE Marketplace, a homeless resource center near the intersection of Waldo and 39th Avenue offering shelter, meals, job training and other services.

“Homeless people spend most of the time that they’re actually homeless as pedestrians,” DeCarmine said. “Anytime you see an issue with pedestrian safety or dangerous traffic, that’s going to affect people who are on their feet or on bicycles more than it is other folks.” 

Ten pedestrian and bicyclist victims listed GRACE Marketplace as their address in GPD Florida Traffic Crash Reports. 

Fran Birch, a 70-year-old GRACE resident, said she just wants the road to be safe. Around a year ago, a friend of Birch’s was hit and killed on Waldo while crossing the street, she said. 

“We don’t need anybody else being hit by a car,” Birch said. 

Rose McDonald-Loston, known as “Granny” by the Gainesville community, was one of the road’s victims. In 2020, she was killed in a hit-and-run on Waldo Road at 64 years old. 

GRACE residents witness dangerous driving on Waldo Road every day. 

Russell Lee, a 57-year-old GRACE resident, said people run red lights, change lanes carelessly and don’t stop for ambulances.

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He said the Gainesville City Commission’s ban on standing in narrow medians, which went into effect Feb. 8, keeps him and others safe. A similar county-wide ordinance passed March 9.

Waldo is not the only road threatening pedestrians. 

This year, University Avenue drew attention after cars hit and killed two UF students — Margaret “Maggie” Paxton and Sophia Lambert — within about a month of each other on the road. In January 2020, UF student Denise Griffiths was hit at a crosswalk on East University Avenue near Cone Park Branch Library, later dying from her injuries.

Following pressure from parents and students, the city made the road safer by installing four temporary speed tables

“I’m glad that there are major changes underway for University Avenue after tragedy there recently, but we’ve had five of those tragedies across the street from the homeless shelter and have still not seen any action,” DeCarmine, executive director of GRACE, said. 

Gainesville City Commissioner Harvey Ward thinks the road’s design causes some of its dangerous conditions. 

As a highway with four wide lanes and broad medians, the road encourages drivers to go as fast as traffic will let them despite the 45 mph speed limit, Ward said. 

“It only takes one minute, one second, one moment of inattention and someone’s life and your life are changed forever,” Ward said. 

Waldo Road is a state road under the control of the Florida Department of Transportation. The agency has a different mission than Gainesville’s City Commission, Ward said. To the state, what makes a good road is whether it moves cars, trucks and cargo effectively, he said. 

“It’s not that they don’t care about people, and it’s not that we don’t care about moving things,” Ward said. “It’s just we’re responsible for people right here in front of us. We’re responsible for our neighbors, and they’re responsible for moving things.” 

Poor lighting on the road also creates safety issues, Ward said. 

Of the 37 pedestrian and cyclist crash reports obtained for Waldo Road, 22 crashes occurred at night.  

However, the Florida Department of Transportation completed a $601,000 lighting improvement project on Waldo from September 2020 to February, FDOT spokesperson Troy Roberts said. New light poles and restored sidewalks were installed on Northeast Waldo Road between University Avenue and Northeast 39th Avenue, according to FDOT’s website.

Each year, the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization for the Gainesville Urbanized Area requests FDOT funding for road projects. They rank these by importance in a “List of Priority Projects.” 

Since 1997, MTPO has asked for funding for projects such as pedestrian refuge islands, which are medians with a crosswalk through them, and improved crossings for bicyclists and pedestrians. 

“These are currently unfunded priorities; a decision to not fund them has not been made,” Roberts wrote. “FDOT funds projects based on the priorities of the MTPO.”

Jon DeCarmine, the executive director of GRACE, wants more pedestrian safety improvements. 

Since GRACE opened in May 2014, at least five people have been hit by cars on Northeast 39th Avenue while crossing the road to a bus stop, DeCarmine said.

GRACE officials have requested a flashing crosswalk or a closer bus stop from the city and county since 2015, but this hasn't gone anywhere, he said. 

One bus stop, located a quarter mile away from the GRACE campus, is frequently used by its residents. Its distance is a challenge for those walking through the heat, rain or cold with severe disabilities, DeCarmine said. 

GRACE resident Lawrence Doherty, 56, said the problem around GRACE is high-speed traffic and too many pedestrians.

“If people would pay more attention to the traffic signals and the drivers would pay more attention to the pedestrians, we wouldn’t have this situation,” Doherty said. 

Last Sunday, he said he saw people out asking for money on each street corner. He thinks more enforcement of speed limits and jaywalking would be helpful still.

Without this kind of regulation, more casualties on Waldo can be expected, he said. 

Jake Reyes, Joelle Wittig and Lianna Hubbard contributed to this report.

Contact Juliana Ferrie at jferrie@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @juliana_f616.

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Juliana Ferrie

Juliana Ferrie is a second-year UF journalism student. She is excited to be working for The Alligator as the Santa Fe Beat reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading or listening to music.


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