TAMPA — Residents who live near eastern Bay-to-Bay Boulevard are cheering a small victory in their fight to make the roadway safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
For more than a year, residents have called for bike lanes and sidewalks free of utility poles.
They lost a big round in that battle several months ago when Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn decided to reject a proposal to reduce the number of traffic lanes and build two bike lanes along the street between Dale Mabry Highway and Esperanza Avenue.
But after nearly a year of negotiations, residents found Tampa Electric Company (TECO) a bit more accommodating — about three weeks ago the power company began replacing utility poles along Bay-to-Bay east of Dale Mabry.
"We have been in discussions with these community groups since last fall. In evaluating the conditions in the field, we determined that 14 poles between Himes and MacDill were due to be replaced," said Cherie Jacobs, media spokesperson for TECO.
Many of these poles were in the middle of sidewalks on the north side of the roadway, effectively blocking people with strollers or in wheelchairs from using the sidewalks.
Jacobs said the poles are being relocated to the farthest edge of the sidewalk or right-of-way away from the road to allow safer passage for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Three additional poles located on the south side of the road between the Selmon Expressway and Bayshore Boulevard are scheduled to be replaced, as well.
TECO’s thousands of utility poles throughout Hillsborough County are inspected regularly as part of the company’s maintenance program, Jacobs said.
Generally, utility poles can last more than 30 years. Each pole can cost thousands of dollars to replace.
A typical city block has multiple utility poles with up to a half dozen found on some blocks along Bay-to-Bay.
Some of those poles along Bay-to-Bay Boulevard began to be replaced in early May.
"We have to applaud TECO. They were willing to meet with us, listen to what we had to say, and then they followed through with what they told us they would do. We couldn’t be more thrilled about seeing the utility poles moved off the sidewalks," says Kim DeGance, president of the Palm Ceia Neighborhood Association.
Many of the remaining poles also carry cable or telephone wires and cannot be replaced without approvals, according to DeGance,
"Now we just need them to move their lines off the old utility poles and then the sidewalks will be officially cleared of the old poles," she said. "South Tampa has so few and far between sidewalks that we need all of them to be free from obstructions and obstacles that allow a wheelchair or stroller to be on them."
Whit Remer, a resident active in the push to make Bay-to-Bay safer, pointed to El Prado Boulevard to the south where a utility pole was recently replaced in the same spot in the middle of the sidewalk.
"El Prado from McDill to Bayshore is brick and not good for bikes, strollers or wheelchairs. Utility poles continue to obstruct the sidewalk," he said.
"It’s a great irritation to people in South Tampa," says Emily Hinsdale, a founder of Sidewalk Stompers who worked with DeGance to get the utility poles moved along Bay-to-Bay.
She was among more than a hundred people who participated in an April protest walk for safer streets, calling for the city to rescind its decision and implement its "Complete Streets" program on Bay-to-Bay.
That program calls for all modes of transportation (vehicles, pedestrians, and bicyclists) to share the city’s roadways.
Bay-to-Bay was originally to be included in the city’s Walk-Bike project that would install dedicated bike lanes in a major reconstruction scheduled to begin this summer.
Instead, the existing four lanes between Dale Mabry and Esperanza will be retained but narrowed to create a two-foot buffer on each side of the road.
Among other changes, the city plans to add a second left turn lane at the intersection with Bayshore Boulevard to improve both traffic flow and pedestrian safety.
Hinsdale, who also works as a correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times on stories not related to this issue, said her group is now lobbying county officials in hopes the county will pressure city officials to reverse their decision on Bay-to-Bay’s reconstruction.
Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at [email protected]