The item toward the end of the Tarpon Springs City Commission agenda last week began as a straightforward discussion about traffic safety.
With two people killed or severely injured on Pinellas County roads every day, Forward Pinellas has a goal to reach zero traffic fatalities by 2045. The countywide planning agency is asking cities to pass resolutions supporting its 237-page Safe Streets Pinellas Action Plan, which highlights crash patterns and advocates for solutions.
But commissioners Michael Eisner and Craig Lunt refused to sign the resolution because it has a clause stating that “people of color, people with lower incomes, and people walking and biking experience a disproportionate risk of severe injury and death from traffic crashes.”
Eisner said he “doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in my body” and opposed bringing “racism, prejudice and politics” into a discussion about road safety. Lunt agreed.
“It’s dribble,” Lunt said “I think that whole statement should be stricken, because if it’s not stricken, I’m not signing it either.”
The commission voted to table the resolution until next month, when Forward Pinellas CEO Whit Blanton will attend the meeting to explain the transit data.
In an interview, Blanton said the action plan has a focus on equity because there are racial and economic disparities in transit, and in order to enact solutions, that reality has to be acknowledged.
In Pinellas County, 73% of the roadways where most deaths and injuries occur run through low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, which make up 32% of the county’s geographic area.
Pedestrians account for 40% of people killed on Pinellas County roadways, according to the action plan. Because of lower rates of car ownership among people of color and low-income communities, those groups are disproportionately represented in pedestrian crashes.
“I think planners, and I am a planner, have an ethical responsibility to plan for the people who are disadvantaged and look at equity and social justice,” Blanton said. “That’s part of our code of ethics.”
History shows the consequences of ignoring equity, Blanton said. In the 1940s and ’50s, highways across America and Tampa Bay were built in ways that ran through and destroyed low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Local governments, Blanton said, have invested heavily in highway and roadway improvements but less on pedestrian and bicycle safety outside of the Pinellas Trail. With underfunded and unreliable public transit, that leaves some residents at more risk.
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“A lot of times, it’s lower income communities and minority neighborhoods that don’t have options, so they are out on foot or on bikes for longer distances,” Blanton said. “If you didn’t look at race and economic disadvantage, then we end up looking at solutions that only benefit the majority.”
Eisner also took issue with some of the artwork made by children that was included in the Forward Pinellas document. The action plan’s cover states “People live here not cars” with each letter of the word “People” in a different color of the rainbow. Another piece shows a person in a hoodie walking down a road, with former President Donald Trump and white people on one side and Black people on the other.
“I will not sign something that is racist,” Eisner said in an interview. “The rainbow headline, the cartoon. I do want to have by 2045 nobody killed, of course, but it’s how you go about it.”
Blanton said the artwork came from a school contest focused on roadway safety that took place shortly after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police in 2020. He said it reflects the diverse perspectives coming from the community.
Blanton said he would still work with the city if the commission adopts the action plan resolution next month without the clause acknowledging racial and economic disparities in transit. But he said a commitment to equity is a requirement of many federal grants. That could complicate Tarpon Springs’ eligibility, especially for projects to improve safety on U.S. 19, a dangerous roadway in the city.
“I’m trying to move the needle on where the problem is,” Blanton said. “If Tarpon were to adopt a resolution striking that clause, I’d have to consider how committed are you to the goals of safety for everyone.”