Clearing Hillsborough County’s Path to a Safer Bay to Bay Blvd

Imagine the City of Tampa could cut traffic accidents by 19% on a thoroughfare that handles 18,000 vehicles a day. Would they pursue it? 

Imagine further, that this simple intervention could be implemented at no additional cost, completed in a few days, and did nothing to impede the existing flow of traffic. Would those benefits compel the city’s top executive to green-light his engineers’ recommendation? 

No. 

Let that sink in for a moment, because this is our reality. Hillsborough County owns a road that runs right through the heart of Palma Ceia. Looking for guidance on what’s “best for Tampa”, officials turned to the City for comment. Our otherwise forward-looking Mayor then advised the County to say no to Vision Zero, no to Complete Streets, and, instead, to embrace a road design for Bay to Bay Blvd. last considered best practice during the Nixon administration.

As Hillsborough County teams with City of Tampa to move Bay to Bay forward, let's make sure County officials understand City engineers’ recommendation as the safer-streets proposal that is was. Further, let’s make sure Hillsborough County Public Works Director John Lyons sees he has the public support to follow through on the County’s Vision Zero mandate and position greater Tampa Bay for future growth. 

If last weekend is any indication, that support seems to be mounting. 

Sunday’s “Walk for Safer Streets” - a community response prompted by the City’s decision - attracted close to 120 participants from the surrounding Palma Ceia neighborhood. Pushing strollers, walking dogs, and making their way to stops at local Bay to Bay Blvd. businesses, walkers teamed up to navigate telephone poles, inaccessible sidewalks and generally dangerous conditions as 45 mph traffic less than a foot from the sidewalk whizzed by them.

 Nearly 120 residents from the Bay to Bay Blvd. corridor took the streets on April 29. Their message? Our neighborhood is not just an on-ramp to the Crosstown Expressway. 

Nearly 120 residents from the Bay to Bay Blvd. corridor took the streets on April 29. Their message? Our neighborhood is not just an on-ramp to the Crosstown Expressway. 

Their collective message? The Bay to Bay corridor is a neighborhood of value, dotted with schools, boutiques, and restaurants; it’s not just a on-ramp to the Crosstown Expressway. Residents want the City to better ensure the safety of the people who walk, commute and live here. 

As the City Transportation Manager went out of his way to articulate during a public meeting on the proposed project, the benefits primarily accrue to drivers and to pedestrians. The Complete Street Design was safer for cars, reducing the likelihood of collision between 19% and 47% by moving turning cars into a central lane. And by curbing dangerous passing behaviors, pedestrians also benefited, as aggressive drivers’ speeds would have been governed by those of the law-abiding citizens in front of them. Importantly, the study contracted by the City also indicated that the new design would produce no measurable increase in peak commute times for motorists. 

Implicit in the Manager’s presentation was a somewhat counter-intuitive message: lane reductions can yield more efficient traffic flows. Those certified by the State as traffic engineers understand this. Most others do not.  

That asymmetry of information and experience should give policy-makers pause before ceding ground to our community’s more reactionary constituents.

And yet, that ground in the campaign for a safer Bay to Bay corridor was quickly lost. Appealing to “conventional wisdom”, skeptics dismissed the results of the $50,000 study commissioned by the City. They raised questions about the credibility of engineers delivering recommendations, stating flatly, “we don’t believe you.”

For those of us living on the Bay to Bay corridor, observing the Complete Street debate has been like watching a slow-motion-car crash. Under normal circumstances, you’d expect the norms of research and policy-making to usher Palma Ceia residents to a safer, more appealing destination.  But in this case, the forces of skepticism and misinformation combined to knock Mayor Buckhorn and his team off the road.

The good news? An ever growing number of people - including the 120 that walked on Sunday - see the Complete Street proposal for what it is: a needed update that enables safer routes to school, accelerates the growth of a budding business corridor, and contributes to Bob Buckhorn’s legacy as an empathetic and forward-looking Mayor for the City of Tampa.

The road to effective infrastructure is fraught. Let’s signpost the clear path Mayor Buckhorn and Public Works Director Lyons need to get us there safely. They might just offer Tampa residents the same unobstructed route in return.