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Palm Avenue slows traffic, promotes walkers, bicyclists

TAMPA — In a city that often grapples with gridlock during rush hour, construction crews are busily narrowing four-lane Palm Avenue, a main thoroughfare connecting Ybor City to the neighborhoods along the Hillsborough River.

Workers are creating grassy medians and adding left turn lanes, bike lanes and mid-block pedestrian crosswalks along Palm from Nebraska Avenue to Tampa Street.

In a separate project expected to begin this month, workers will add on-street parking, crosswalks and bike lanes on Palm between Tampa Street and North Boulevard and install roundabouts at the intersections of Highland and North Boulevard.

The redesign of Palm is an attempt to even the playing field in the tug-of-war between motorists and their slower fellow travelers: pedestrians and bicyclists. It's one of a number of streets around downtown Tampa undergoing a makeover to slow traffic and make the roads safer for walking and bicycling, a process called "road diets.''

Work started this week on another "road diet'' project at Channelside Drive and Morgan Street, within the waterfront district that is being developed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and partner Cascade Investment.

"We're not trying to congest or slow down the traffic to where it's bumper to bumper,'' said Jean Duncan, director of Tampa's Transportation and Stormwater Services Department. Rather, she said, the road designers' aim is to keep cars from exceeding the 30 mph speed limit.

Though Duncan said there has been some positive feedback on the Palm Avenue work, the first three people stopped in the neighborhood and interviewed all gave it a thumbs down.

"They block up the street. It's just a mess,'' said Majid Shabazz, out for his morning walk along Palm Avenue.''

Westbound cars stack up especially at Tampa Street, he said, adding that a left turn signal is needed. As it is now, the cars waiting to turn left block the line of cars wanting to go straight, he said.

Brad Matthews, who lives in Longwood but grew up in the neighborhood, said he doesn't understand why the city is narrowing the road. Once the river area is fully developed and those residents want to go back and forth to Ybor City, "it's basically going to be a traffic nightmare,'' he said.

"When it comes to that point, they're going to have to change it and turn it back into a four-lane.''

Stephanie Gallego, who works at busy Palm Avenue Sandwich Shop, said it takes a lot longer to make the eastbound trek along Palm from Florida Avenue when coming to work in the morning.

"Everybody's going everywhere, and they're all stuck,'' she said.

Told that the purpose was to get cars down to 30 mph, she said, "right now we're under 20 (mph).''

Duncan said the city has plans to improve the intersection at Florida, Franklin and Palm and reset the light signals along Palm to improve the flow. She said the width of the road isn't as important in moving traffic as having the proper signal timing at the intersections.

As to the "road diet,'' research has shown that when motorists see pedestrians, bicyclists and even grassy median strips, they tend to slow down. Drivers see they are now in a residential environment, Duncan said, and become "more cognizant of how they're driving.''

Crews started work on Palm Avenue at the beginning of the year and are expected to finish the job this month. A grant from the Florida Department of Transportation paid for the $700,411 project.

The design stems from two plans, Duncan said: the InVision City Center Plan, which calls for Palm Avenue-like makeovers throughout the downtown area and its nearby neighborhoods; and the Walk/Bike Plan, providing for bike paths and traffic-slowing measures downtown, in the Westshore business district and the University of South Florida area.

Every project the city does has its pros and cons, Duncan said. If it's installing streetlights, some applaud the anti-crime measure while others complain about the lights shining in their bedrooms, she noted.

"We'll never make everyone 100 percent happy.''

If they tried, she said, they wouldn't get anything done.

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com.

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