Thursday, April 26, 2018
News Roundup

Hooper: Fix a fatal stretch of Hillsborough Avenue now

The news wrenched Owen Young's gut.

It always does.

Whenever the Middleton High principal learns that a car has struck one of his students trying to cross Hillsborough Avenue, it shakes his soul.

"It's like, not again," said Young, still grappling with the death of 15-year-old Norma Velasquez-Cabrera, who was hit by a car March 18 along with her 14-year-old sister, Victoria, still in Tampa General.

"You're hoping that the child is okay, but you almost know the severity when you hear it's an accident — understanding the speed of the cars, the inability of students to size up getting across the road. It almost puts you in a position of holding your breath.

"You want to hear the good news, that everyone is safe, but you know there's a strong possibility of a fatality arising out of any call coming from Hillsborough Avenue."

Cars have struck four students in the last 2 1/2 years trying to cross the busy thoroughfare between 22nd and 30th streets. It's a problematic stretch on a road that is deceptively dangerous for both drivers and pedestrians. Not only do students dart into traffic instead of using the crosswalks, but there's a flurry of cars switching lanes or entering the road from retail outlets and side streets.

Young will not wait for another fatality. He's counseling his students — even bringing in a speaker from the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. He's acquiring reflective strips and blinking lights students can attach to their backpacks. He's on the public address system every day preaching safety.

But Young really wants action instead of words, community solutions instead of cautionary tales.

"It's at a point where we have to come up with some kind of strategic plan for that area," Young said. "There's a culture and a situation that's going to produce the same results if we don't act quickly.

"If there's already been two deaths, what's it going to take, four or five more lives, to meet a price that's suitable to put a safe pathway over or across Hillsborough Avenue?

"They say it would cost a million dollars to build a (pedestrian) overpass. My question is, What is a life worth?"

The Florida Department of Transportation oversees Hillsborough Avenue, also known as U.S. 92 and State Road 600. It has promised to pull crash data on the area, as it did in 2011 after a pickup truck struck and killed Middleton student Shenika Davis, 15, in the vicinity of last week's accident.

However, the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization released a "congestion management, crash mitigation" report chock-full of ideas that can help calm traffic in the stretch of Hillsborough that runs from Interstate 275 to 50th Street. With yet another death, the report seems the perfect starting point to crafting real solutions instead of talking about more data.

On April 5, Young will lead the school's fifth annual "Ride For Education," an event expected to draw hundreds of motorcyclists. Given the timing, this year's ride will focus on raising funds for the Velasquez-Cabrera family.

"The community has to help in the process of making it known that it is unacceptable for children to be killed crossing a street," Young said.

I hope the community comes out for the ride and subsequent "TigerFest" at the school seeking solutions.

The solutions are apparent, but the commitment is lacking. The memories of Shenika Davis and Norma Velasquez-Cabrera should change all of that.

That's all I'm saying.

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