Bay to Bay Boulevard fight moves to Hillsborough County Commission

One side wants to make the busy South Tampa road safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. The other side thinks that will just make traffic worse.
Residents are at odds over a plan to make a busy stretch of Bay to Bay Boulevard safer for bikers and pedestrians by reducing traffic lanes, adding dedicated bike lanes and pedestrian spaces. Local businesses argue that would just make traffic worse. [CHARLIE FRAGO   |   Times]
Residents are at odds over a plan to make a busy stretch of Bay to Bay Boulevard safer for bikers and pedestrians by reducing traffic lanes, adding dedicated bike lanes and pedestrian spaces. Local businesses argue that would just make traffic worse. [CHARLIE FRAGO | Times]
Published February 20

TAMPA — One man showed a video of cars zooming by his young children as they scampered across Bay to Bay Boulevard on their way to Roosevelt Elementary School.

A woman spoke of the time a motorist blew through a red light and slammed into her while she used the crosswalk jogged in the crosswalk to get across the busy street. She landed 35 feet away.

So it went for two hours on Wednesday as more than 30 parents, city planners and home and business owners pleaded with Hillsborough County commissioners over the future shape of Bay to Bay Boulevard.

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Should the aging roadway be rebuilt in a way that would make it safer for pedestrians and cyclists? Or would those plans just make traffic even worse on the busy east-west artery through South Tampa?

Tampa’s own city engineers called the road's current, four-lane design an unsafe "dinosaur" that couldn't be built under current codes and guidelines. Instead, they developed a “road diet” plan to narrow the four-lane road down to two lanes and a central turn lane, all flanked by dedicated bike lanes, pedestrian walkways and other "traffic calming" measures.

Those plans have been opposed by an equally fervent group of activists who say such fixes would only worsen the traffic jams that already threaten to put them out of business. Mayor Bob Buckhorn agreed, and officially killed the “Complete the Streets” project in March. A county-funded effort to repave the road was set to begin this week, though commissioners postponed the project to address residents’ concerns.

“I have watched the traffic increase over the years because of the major thoroughfare coming off because of the crosstown expressway,” said James Blocker, who has owned a lighting business on Bay to Bay Boulevard for 22 years. “It's so bad it causes accidents continuously and if you don’t repave the road, the road is just going to get worse.”

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Bay to Bay Boulevard is one of several county-owned roads within Tampa’s city limits. But that doesn’t mean Hillsborough has the freedom to change their design, said John Lyons, the county’s director of public works. An old inter-local agreement limits the county’s responsibilities to simply paying to maintain the roads under designs set by the city. It's an arrangement that's become so problematic that commissioners agreed Wednesday to send a letter to Tampa's new mayor after the city elections to discuss transferring ownership of all county-owned roads.

“There are 50 miles of county-owned roads within the city, and I tell you what — going into my ninth year on the commission, it's been a pain,” County Commissioner Sandy Murman said.

Until then, though, the commission voted to continue repaving the road as planned — while also encouraging the next city administration to consider adding safety measures such as crossing guards and bike lanes.

There are too many problems with Bay to Bay's current condition to keep putting those improvements off, Lyons said. The road has a very narrow right of way, TECO power poles sit in the middle of sidewalks and there are wheelchair ramps that aren't compliant with the American Disabilities Act.

“I agree with the city engineers that a more modern ‘complete streets’ configuration would be both safer and more efficient for everyone, however it turns out that my opinion on this doesn't matter much,” Commissioner Mariella Smith said. “It’s the mayor's opinion that counts. We're in an awkward position with these county-owned roads where the city has all the authority yet the county does all the work, whether we agree with the city's design or not.

“So there may be times where a road design chosen by the mayor does not fit with our county priorities and policies and yet the county still has to do the work the way the mayor dictates and then the county takes much of the blame when there's controversy over the city’s design.”

With the commission's approval, Lyons said the county can start resurfacing the road by this coming Monday.

“The roadway condition is extremely poor, and it was planned to have been resurfaced months ago,” Lyons said. “I think we carry some risks with waiting.”

But for South Tampa residents like Jaime Rubscha, who said she was struck by a vehicle while jogging across Bay to Bay in 2014, a small delay now risks the lives of pedestrians. Ever since her ordeal, she has learned all she can about safe road design.

"It might not be the easy way, but it’s the right way," she said. "Let's get this design right for the future."

Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.