Is Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard really that dangerous?

Two tragic crashes that claimed three lives have dominated headlines, but the iconic street isn’t among the top 20 most dangerous roads in Hillsborough County.
A runner jogs past the scene of the Jan. 9 fatal crash on Bayshore Boulevard in which a driver killed a pedestrian, 70-year-old George Gage. The scenic street has seen its share of tragedies in recent years, but data shows it isn't close to being one of the most dangerous streets in Hillsborough County.
A runner jogs past the scene of the Jan. 9 fatal crash on Bayshore Boulevard in which a driver killed a pedestrian, 70-year-old George Gage. The scenic street has seen its share of tragedies in recent years, but data shows it isn't close to being one of the most dangerous streets in Hillsborough County. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 21, 2020|Updated Jan. 23, 2020

TAMPA — The horror of the recent pedestrian fatalities on Tampa’s most famous street has shocked the city twice in less than two years.

The deaths of Jessica Raubenolt, 24, and her 21-month-old daughter, Lillia, who police say were killed by speeding teens, galvanized the city’s attention in May 2018. This month, after police say a drunk driver swerved onto the sidewalk and killed 70-year-old George Gage, residents and pedestrian safety advocates renewed calls for major changes to the thoroughfare.

Lined with mansions and high-rises, Bayshore offers scenic views of Hillsborough Bay and downtown along its 4.5 miles of wide sidewalk frequented by walkers, bicyclists and runners. The street also serves as a busy artery between MacDill Air Force Base, affluent South Tampa neighborhoods and downtown.

Some residents want to turn the two lanes nearest the bay into a park. Others have suggested pulling up the asphalt and returning the road to its original brick surface to slow traffic.

Related: Are speed cameras the answer for Tampa's Bayshore?

The city has resisted such appeals, saying it’s already made several safety upgrades after the 2018 deaths. The reckless drunken driving of Benjamin Douglas Ehas was a criminal act that no reasonable improvements could have prevented, city officials have said.

So how dangerous is Bayshore compared to other busy Tampa streets?

Not nearly as hazardous as many others, according to fatality statistics from the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

In fact, Bayshore wasn’t on the list of the top 20 dangerous roads in the county, a tally that includes Hillsborough, Fletcher and Florida avenues, Bruce B. Downs and Kennedy boulevards and 50th Street, as measured by crashes per mile between 2012 and 2016, according to the planning organization.

A stretch of West Hillsborough Avenue similar in length to Bayshore saw 18 fatalities between 2015 and 2019 while Bayshore had two, said Gena Torres, the project manager for the organization’s Vision Zero program. (Gage was killed Jan. 9, 2020.)

Vision Zero is a global movement to reduce pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities to zero while improving mobility for all segments of a society. It’s a concept that Mayor Jane Castor supports.

The city and Torres say Vision Zero concepts likely wouldn’t have prevented Gage’s death.

City Council member Bill Carlson, however, said the Jan. 9 crash is evidence that more needs to be done on Bayshore. Carlson, who represents South Tampa, said his constituents are upset and want the city to respond.

“The consensus I’m hearing is we need to dust off the plan,” he said.

There isn’t an agreement among residents on priorities, but the city needs to respond, Carlson said.

“The community wants action on this. We need to do something,” he said.

At Carlson’s suggestion, council members last week scheduled an April workshop to explore possible solutions for Bayshore. Council member Orlando Gudes asked for city staff to undertake a citywide assessment on speeding.

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City officials, meanwhile, said the Bayshore safety plan has been fully implemented. The city lowered the speed limit from 40 to 35 mph, narrowed lanes from 12 to 10 feet, installed seven flashing pedestrian beacon crossings, improved striping and added buffers to part of the road’s bicycle lane.

“Everything in that plan has been done,” said Jean Duncan, the city’s transportation and stormwater services department director.

Last year, the city and county spent $1 million on safety improvements. Planners are considering other steps, including adding more flashing beacons south of Howard Avenue to Gandy Boulevard. The Euclid and Rome Avenue intersections are also being studied, said Duncan.

But Duncan said the media’s focus on Bayshore’s tragedies has overshadowed problems on more dangerous streets.

“When an accident happens on Bayshore, it’s major headlines," Duncan said. "When an accident happens on some other street. it’s crickets.”

Related: Less attention paid to pedestrian deaths that don't happen on Bayshore

Torres, who maintains a countywide database of traffic fatalities, remembers the names of relatively unknown victims, including 63-year-old Leila Reid, who died crossing 40th Street on the same day in 2018 as Raubenolt and her toddler were killed on Bayshore.

“The same heartbreak is being felt by every one of those family members," Torres said.

Former City Council member Frank Reddick wishes the state Department of Transportation and local governments would put the same resources into Hillsborough Avenue, 40th Street and other dangerous streets in low-income neighborhoods as they do for “high-profile” streets like Bayshore.

During his eight years on City Council, Reddick strongly advocated for more to be done to save pedestrian lives in those areas, including calling attention to victims who died on those streets.

Two 15-year-old girls were killed crossing Hillsborough Avenue near Middleton High School in 2011 and 2014. A 27-year-old woman pushing her toddler in a stroller was killed on a street without adequate lighting near Hillsborough in 2011.

“The attention has been paid to Bayshore because that area is where the elite class lives,” said Reddick, who is currently running for a county commission seat.

Carlson said he wants to take a “fresh look” at all the city’s dangerous roads. He wholeheartedly agrees other roads need more attention and resources. But Carlson argued that Bayshore’s iconic status makes it a special case.

“It has to be a top priority because it is one of the symbols of Tampa," Carlson said. “When somebody gets killed anywhere, it’s terrible, but when somebody gets killed on Bayshore it affects all of Tampa.”

The 20 most dangerous stretches of roadway in Hillsborough County, from the Vision Zero Action Plan based on severe crash data from 2012 to 2016.

Brandon Boulevard (Falkenburg Road to Dover Road)

Gibsonton Drive, Boyette Road (Interstate 75 to Balm Riverview Road)

Hillsborough Avenue (Longboat Boulevard to Florida Avenue)

Fletcher Avenue (Armenia Avenue to 50th Street)

Dale Mabry Highway (Hillsborough Avenue to Bearss Avenue)

Lynn Turner Road (Gunn Highway to Ehrlich Road)

Meridian Avenue (Channelside Drive to Twiggs Street)

Bruce B. Downs (Fowler Avenue to Bearss Avenue)

50th Street and 56th Street (Martin Luther King Boulevard to Hillsborough Avenue)

15th Street (Fowler Avenue to Fletcher Avenue)

Big Bend Road (U.S. 41 to Interstate 75)

U.S. 301 (Interstate 75 to Adamo Drive)

Sheldon Road (Hillsborough Avenue to Waters Avenue)

Interstate 4 (Interstate 275 to 22nd Street)

56th Street (Sligh Avenue to Busch Boulevard)

Interstate 275 (Howard Frankland Bridge to Busch Boulevard)

Kennedy Boulevard (Dale Mabry Highway to Ashley Drive)

78th Street (Causeway Boulevard to Palm River Road)

Mango Road (Martin Luther King Boulevard to U.S. 92)

Florida Avenue (Waters Avenue to Linebaugh Avenue)