Thursday, August 2, 2012

Florida's Transportation Battle: Smart Road Improvements

All across America there are roads lined with strip malls and box stores. What may have been a two lane road is now four or more. Driving down this road could put you in any-place America - a sea of parking lots, entrances and exits, traffic lights and traffic. Most of the stores are probably the same, too.  

These are roads with one mode of transportation in mind - the car. The more lanes the road has, the more dangerous it is for pedestrians, bicyclists, and those taking the bus who may find that crossing this multi-lane road is a challenge at best. 
One road that fits this description is the U.S. 41 Corridor running between Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida.
US 41 is well known for congestion and unsafe
conditions for walkers and bikers 
Can a road like this be fixed? The answer is yes, if the will, the plans, and the funds are committed to making it safer for pedestrians and biking and safer for those who use transit to get to shopping, jobs, and schools along this congested road. 

Sierra Club Florida sent a letter in July to the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization to remind the agency of a long-standing vision of  "achieving and sustaining a safe and effective multimodal transportation network that strengthens the economy, improves long-term community livability, reduces energy demand and its effect on climate change, and supports wise land-use decisions and redevelopment in appropriate areas." The letter aimed to push back against an impending decision to take funds committed to making U.S. 41 to make it accessible for multiple modes of transportation (not just cars) and instead applying them to - you guessed it-widening another road: the Venice Bypass.  
The Sierra Club’s letter and others challenged the sincerity of the Sarasota Metropolitan Organization's and Florida Department of Transportation's commitment to supply sufficient crosswalks and designated turn lanes that lessen the chance of vehicle-pedestrian fatalities.

Yet rather than improving U.S. 41, the option the agencies now want is to take another road, the Venice By-Pass, and expand it from four to six lanes. Wider must be better to them, it seems.  

Traffic along the busy Venice By-Pass
Sierra Club Florida Healthy Air Organizer Britten Cleveland notes that:
We are concerned with the proposal to transfer funds designated for multimodal improvements to the U.S. 41 corridor for widening Venice Bypass - a project that does little to achieve the visionary goal of a safe and effective multimodal transportation network.

(Sarasota Metropolitan Organization) board members should not approve the transfer of funds unless all of the transferred funds are used only for significant multimodal treatments. This includes using the proposed third lane for plans to improve bus pullouts and establishing designated right turns rather than a thru lane. 
Widening the Venice By-Pass has been on table since the early 1990s, when gasoline cost $1.06 per gallon. The road was built to not only take traffic around a more congested downtown area, but also to provide more access to sprawl. Florida, like most other states, experienced an enormous amount of development in the 1990s, as well aso during the recent housing boom (now bust). 

The debate really boils down to what developers want vs. what is best for smart-growth principles that add to community livability and safety of those using the roads to get where they need to go. Gas is far from $1.06 per gallon. High gas prices drive up demand for transit and getting around without a car.

So, plans to invest in fixing U.S. 41 are losing dollars to acquiring a third lane for the by-pass. A wider road will still end up congested and it won’t help air quality or those walking, biking, and taking transit. 

According to one advocate, the Florida Department of Transportation's own data show that when a road expands from four to six lanes, pedestrian fatalities rise 158 percent, and bicycle fatalities rise 249 percent. Sierra Club is entering this debate to ensure that funds that have now been transferred will in fact be used to make real improvements to this project.

Americans are demanding transportation choices. Wider roads offer little choice and make travel even more dangerous for those eager to reduce air pollution, dependence on oil, and get where they need go without a car.

-- Ann Mesnikoff, Director of the Sierra Club Green Transportation