Bus system additions designed to ease congestion
If you've ever been on SW 20th Avenue during morning traffic, you know that it can back up from SW 34th Street all the way across the bridge over I-75. Even during the course of the day, it is a busy thoroughfare, due primarily to the abundance of students living along and in close proximity to this county road. It was this situation, and ideas to improve it, that was the primary topic at the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) meeting of Sept. 11. Various ideas have been knocked around for quite some time and the MTPO was to decide among several alternatives to alleviate the congestion.
Both the city and county commissions sit jointly to make up the MTPO. At the meeting, they were presented with several propositions that reflected recommendations from the Technical Advisory Committee and the Citizens Advisory Committee and others. One idea was to four-lane the existing road while providing for sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus bays. A second recommendation was to realign the road, allowing it to meet SW 34th Street at the intersection of Hull Road. The existing SW 20th Avenue would remain, but only as far west as SW 43rd Street. Still another idea was to install a pedestrian/bicycle trail north of SW 20th Avenue from Hull Road to the bike trail along SW 62nd Blvd.
The real catch to the two major construction ideas is that there is presently no money to do either, and according to figures provided by the North Florida Regional Planning Council (NFRPC), by the time the work is completed, the road will again be at or over capacity, with single-occupant vehicles crawling along spewing their pollutants into the air at an ever-increasing rate. So, as Commissioner Penny Wheat pointed out, we end up in a perpetual "planning-to-build" situation. The MTPO then opened the floor to public comment.
There were several objections to the new road alignment because of the impact it would have on the wooded and wetland areas which lie in its path. Then Perry Maull, Regional Transit System (RTS) Director, noted that transit should be an integral part of any plan to improve the corridor, and then described the current transit situation in that area. He explained that current bus service was woefully inadequate, running at only 30 minute intervals with buses frequently having to leave riders at the stops along SW 20th Ave because they fill up by the time they pass Melrose Apartments (Melrose provides free bus passes to students renters). "There is an immediate demand for better service in this area," Maull said, before outlining his proposal to meet that demand as well as immediate demand in a few other areas heavily populated with students.
Maull's proposal would accomplish the following:
1. Put two more buses on SW 20th Avenue, reducing the headways (time between buses) from 30 minutes to 15 minutes.
2. Add buses on SW 13th Street, reducing headways there to 15 minutes during peak hours.
3. Add buses to the SW 34th Street/SW 23rd Terrace area, reducing headways to 15 minutes during peak hours.
The total cost of these new operations would be $341,000. Maull said that the Florida Department of Transportation had agreed to fund half of the cost and proposed that the city, county, and the University of Florida (UF) fund the other half. The result would be an immediate reduction in the number of vehicles on SW 20th Avenue as well as on roads in the other areas mentioned. RTS has already purchased the necessary buses for these improvements.
Commissioner Charles Chestnut said that the county and city commissions, acting separately, should fund the transit improvements. Most commissioners sitting on the MTPO seemed to think this was a good idea, but a motion was made to adopt the road realignment option. The motion failed since it did not get a majority of the city commission (a motion before the MTPO must have a majority of both commissions in order to pass). A motion to adopt the four-laning proposal also failed. Marli Sanderson of NFRPC told commissioners that in order for the project to continue as scheduled (meaning that it would be finished by some year like 2003), a decision must be made by December 31.
It's really a good thing that both recommendations failed since both had left many questions unanswered. Commissioner Pegeen Hanrahan said she would like to know how much of the land along the proposed realignment route is buildable, but no one had an answer. Otis Jones, representing UF, affirmed that UF intends to build a park and ride lot on the west side of SW 34th Street at Hull Road. Such a lot will only attract more traffic to the area when the object here should be to reduce traffic. UF continues to plan to build parking lots and garages willy nilly with no concern about the traffic that such facilities will generate (not to mention the tremendous cost when compared with the more sensible option of providing more transit service). And now we hear that UF's cherished convention center/hotel, to be located at the same intersection as the park and ride lot, will become a reality after all. What impact will a project of this magnitude have on traffic in the area?
Since the September MTPO meeting, the city commission has agreed to provide the approximately $57,000 to help fund Maull's immediate transit improvements. Surprisingly, UF has also agreed to contribute their share. But incredibly, the county commission initially refused to be a part of the solution. Commissioner Leveda Brown said that the city should fund it from the utility surcharge it collects from county residents. What commissioner Brown, and evidently other county commissioners as well, apparently fail to realize is that there is a substantial amount of transit service provided to residents of the unincorporated areas which is being funded by the city. Look at a transit map and you'll see routes running along Tower Road, Archer Road, SW 34th Street from Archer Road to Williston Road, and a host of other areas outside of the city boundaries. While the city continues to fund the bulk of the transit operation, county support for transit has actually declined in recent years. The argument that there's not enough money in the budget just doesn't hold up here. We are talking about $57,000 out of $170 million.
Maull again took the request before the county on Oct. 14 and finally won approval although the amount of money needed was somewhat less since nearly a month had passes. He is set to go to UF Student Government on Oct. 15 with a proposal for phased-in increased services with Activity and Service Fee support. Recall that students voted in a non-binding referendum last fall to pay an extra $1 for better service and free rides.
You have to give credit to Maull; he's not just sitting on his hands or whining and complaining about a lack of funding. He's actually coming up with workable, fundable solutions and increasing ridership and farebox revenues in the process. We may yet see a workable mass transit system in this city if all parties concerned offer their continued support.
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