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Gainesville City Commission votes to make changes on University Avenue

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Gainesville City Commission decided last night to make a number of changes along University Avenue, including possibly closing two blocks of NW 17th St.

Recent pedestrian deaths of UF students on University Avenue prompted a discussion of what the city commission can do to improve safety along Gainesville’s roads. The item was added to the agenda by City Commissioner Harvey Ward, who said, “As we are all aware, traffic safety is a very real problem in our community.” In addition to the Gator STEP program, he proposed closing “on a pilot basis” the 100 and 200 blocks of NW 17th St. “to car and truck traffic, other than deliveries and waste collection” and asking UF to close Buckman Drive to motor vehicle access from W. University Ave. “Turns at this intersection seem dangerous, anecdotally, dating back more than a decade, and until we have studied the data, we should take this precaution.” He also proposed asking FDOT to turn over responsibility of SR 26 (University Ave) from E. 15th St. to W. 22nd St. and U.S. 441 from N. 16th Ave. to S. 16th Ave. to the City of Gainesville “for the purpose of reshaping them in the Complete Streets model.”

Commissioner David Arreola asked the community and local legislators to join in asking FDOT for a local appropriation, as well as “both a focus on short-term upgrades that could be made, perhaps they do recommend closing the roadways to through traffic… I too am resolved to have not one more death. It’s just too much to bear.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos added, “We need to design our city for the people who live here, not for vehicles… It’s a significant cost that it’s going to take for us to have to take control of the roads and redesign them…” He suggested partnerships with the County and with UF to help with the cost. 

Mayor Lauren Poe said the City “is committed to our policy to end all deaths and serious injuries on our road for every user… right up there with affordable housing and racial equity… what we have under our control is education and enforcement… Nothing will change with University or 13th… unless the State of Florida says so. So I don’t want to make false promises… If it were up to me, it would be a two-lane road with a bike lane, incredible landscaping, that’s where it needs to be.

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Ward spoke about 3 deaths since 2007 at the intersection of W. University Ave. and NW 17th St: “There’s something very wrong with that intersection. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know that two blocks of 17th Street could get by with a few months of study, closed… Somebody could get killed there before the sun rises tomorrow again. I don’t want it to be our responsibility when we could have closed the street… There are some business hardships with all of this. There’s business hardships with everything we’re talking about because we’re going to slow traffic down, that’s what this is really about… and that’s going to cost some people some money…” He said all of the “headlines are… generated” from state roads, not City of Gainesville roads. “They’re generated from poorly-designed FDOT roads.”

15 people called in during public comment, all asking the city commission to do something to make the roads safer. 

The commission put together a 7-part motion:

  1. Support the introduction of the STEP program for increased enforcement.
  2. On a pilot basis, close the 100 and 200 blocks of NW 17th St. to car and truck traffic, other than deliveries and waste collection, and ask UF to close Buckman to motor vehicle access to University Avenue.
  3. Direct the City Manager to approach FDOT and ask them to turn over responsibility of SR 26 from E. 15th St. to W. 22nd St. and U.S. 441 from N 16th Ave. to S. 17th Ave. to the City of Gainesville for the purpose of reshaping them in a Complete Streets model, and empower the City Manager to approach UF and the County about partnering to request major funding assistance for redesign and further planning and maintenance of those streets.
  4. Empower the City Manager and staff to make changes within their authority as quickly as possible regarding traffic safety and to aggressively bring the commission ideas that fall outside their authority.
  5. Direct the City Manager to work with the City’s communications department to create and enact a traffic safety education program for the community.
  6. Give direction to create a coalition of local partners, other cities’ commissioners, and legislators with connection to UF to support funding allocations.
  7. Ask the District Secretary of FDOT for a reduction in the speed limit on W. University Ave., flashing light signage, and appropriate barriers along the sidewalks. 

Poe said he was concerned that they were making decisions without any professional input. He was specifically concerned about whether barriers make roads safer: “the more you separate pedestrians and other users, the more cars speed up, the more dangerous you make the road.” He was also concerned that closing the intersection at NW 17th St. may direct traffic to non-signalized intersections that could create a “potentially worse point of conflict.”

Because of those concerns, Poe asked that Part 7 be separated out. Part 7 passed 4-3, with Poe, Hayes-Santos, and Commissioner Reina Saco in dissent. The rest of the motion passed unanimously. 

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