Proponents win effort to have traffic signal installed in front of Haley VA hospital

Times (2017) Robert Sawallesh and Mary Ellen Harlan led the drive for a light at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Times (2017) Robert Sawallesh and Mary Ellen Harlan led the drive for a light at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital at Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Published Aug. 3, 2018

TAMPA — They worked it like a military campaign — Operation Traffic Signal.

It wasn't exactly the Normandy landings, but lives will be saved, proponents promise, with their victory in a four-year effort to get a traffic signal installed in front of the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital on busy Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

The Hillsborough County Commission on Thursday approved the project, to be designed and built by the county and paid for — to the tune of $1.4 million — by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Credit the work of two people with military connections setting up a web page, conducting traffic counts, gathering 750 petition signatures and lobbying the decision makers. They are the co-chairs of the operation — Robert Sawallesh, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and veteran of the Vietnam War, and Mary Ellen Harlan, a top Haley volunteer and widow of a Navy aviator fatally injured in Korea.

"We're grateful to all those involved to make it happen, especially the passionate efforts of Bob and Mary Ellen," said Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins. "They truly care about the health and well-being of veterans."

The hospital generates plenty of traffic on its own — about 5,000 visitors every day, said former county commissioner Mark Sharpe, who heads a regional alliance known as Tampa !p. Adding to the traffic load is the new iQ Luxury Apartments building next door, home to more than 650 people and more than 400 parking spaces.

All told, this stretch of Bruce B. Downs carries about 50,000 cars per day, according to Hillsborough County statistics.

To protect those pulling in and out at the hospital, the county will install a traffic signal, modify turn lanes, and add pedestrian safety features.

"I'm thrilled, because it is going to save lives," said Harlan, 77, who lives in Sun City Center and travels to Haley six days a week. She is liaison to the Haley House family residence on the hospital campus and has put in more than 37,000 hours of volunteer time at Haley.

Sawallesh, of Valrico, said the traffic improvements will "mean a great deal to the recovering wounded and injured and their families who drive in and out of the Veterans Hospital campus daily."

A 2014 county traffic study, taken before the apartment building opened, found an average of two crashes per year within 500 feet of the intersection, none fatal, between Bruce B. Downs and the hospital's Richard Silver Way.

One week day last year, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Sawallesh said he counted 53 vehicles making a dangerous U-turn at Bruce B. Downs and then an immediate right into the apartments. At the same time, hospital staff and visitors leaving Haley were making a right turn onto Bruce B. Downs or an illegal left turn onto Bruce B. Downs, Sawallesh said.

Sharpe said his alliance supported the traffic signal project, in part because more growth is coming to the USF area.

"Safety is the bottom line for us," he said, "with the number of students going back and forth and people who served their country using that hospital daily."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman