Haley hospital needs traffic signal, but $1.5 million cost is prohibitive

Robert F. Sawallesh, here on an elevated crosswalk near the James A. Haley veterans hospital, has been petitioning authorities to put a traffic signal at the entrance to the hospital.
Robert F. Sawallesh, here on an elevated crosswalk near the James A. Haley veterans hospital, has been petitioning authorities to put a traffic signal at the entrance to the hospital.
Published Feb. 1, 2017

TAMPA — An estimated 50,000 vehicles travel every day through the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Richard Silver Way, the main entrance to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

That should be enough to require a traffic signal there, say two people pushing for it — Bob Sawallesh, a retired Army medical intelligence officer from Valrico, and Mary Ellen Harlan, a retired nurse with more than 30,000 hours of volunteer time at Haley.

The traffic volume makes a left-hand turn from northbound Bruce B. Downs into the hospital challenging, they say. And the problems are exacerbated by the opening of an adjacent student housing complex whose residents make frequent U-turns there.

Sawallesh and Harlan have petitioned county officials, left cards seeking support during monthly Operation Helping Hand dinners at the hospital, and created a FaceBook Go Petition that has garnered about 220 signatures.

"It is very dangerous," said Harlan, 75, of Sun City Center. "The cars speed up in front of the hospital."

Part of their challenge is the number of government entities that have a stake in the intersection, including Hillsborough County, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of South Florida.

The county agrees that a traffic light is warranted, but it could cost as much as $1.5 million.

"This project is complex, involving multiple parties and legal authorities within the county, USF, private ownership and the federal government," said Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins. "We are working together to assess the funding needed and other potential challenges."

In 2014, after Sawallesh started his push, Hillsborough County studied traffic levels at the intersection and found that the volume warranted installation of a signal. The number of crashes, however, didn't. At the time the study was compiled, there had been none since 2011, and the minimum is five to warrant a traffic light.

Later in 2014, there were three crashes, according to data the county provided the Tampa Bay Times. Each crash involved drivers improperly leaving the hospital, according to the county.

Construction of an apartment building for USF students, the iQ Luxury Apartments, has contributed to the volume, Sawallesh and Harlan say. There are currently 656 people living in the building and it has more than 400 parking spaces.

One weekday, between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., Sawallesh counted 53 vehicles making a U-turn at Bruce B. Downs and then an immediate right into the apartments, he said.

At the same time, hospital staff and visitors leaving Haley were making a right turn onto Bruce B. Downs or an illegal left turn on to Bruce B. Downs, Sawallesh said.

"At that intersection urgently needed are traffic signals, turning lanes, pedestrian crosswalks and modern street lights," he said.

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The $1.5 million estimated cost includes a traffic signal and roadway improvements, said Hillsborough County Transportation Program Manager Bob Campbell. It could take as long as 16 months to complete the project from the time the work is approved.

Because Richard Silver Way is considered a private road, the county would not pay for the work, said Campbell. Collins, the Haley spokeswoman, said the VA is working with USF and others to figure out who should pay.

"We are currently working with Hillsborough County and the University of South Florida to find the best path forward to ensure safety for our veterans, staff and community," she said.

USF officials have met with officials from Haley and the county. The new student apartments are not affiliated with the college.

"We've expressed support for improvements in this area," said USF spokesman Adam Freeman. "While new projects adjacent to the USF campus are often complex and involve multiple organizations, we will continue to work on finding ways to enhance public safety."

The county has agreed to manage the project once VA comes up with the funding.

No one from the apartment complex responded to a request for comment.

With so many balls in the air on the project, there is no timeline on installing a traffic signal, said Collins, the VA spokeswoman.

Sawallesh said there is a danger in waiting too long.

"That intersection is a disaster waiting to happen."

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