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  1. Opinion

Column: Federal transportation bill must make pedestrians safer in Tampa Bay

Pedestrians use a crosswalk along Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg near 18th Avenue. Flashing mid-block crosswalks are becoming more popular in Tampa Bay, but much more must be done to make the region safer for pedestrians. [Times photo (2018) by Chris Urso]

The Tampa Bay region has an ongoing and inexcusable trend of drivers striking and killing people who are walking or crossing the street. Florida has been consistently ranked as the most dangerous state for pedestrians, and eight of the 10 most dangerous metro areas are in the Sunshine State.

Here's just one example: Drivers struck and killed 219 people between 2008 and 2017 in Florida's 15th congressional district, which comprises parts of Hillsborough and Polk counties, including Brandon, Plant City and Lakeland. This contributed to making the Tampa-St. Petersburg region the ninth most dangerous metro area in the country — and the problem is getting worse, not better. Between 2016 and 2019, the region's Pedestrian Danger Index number rose from 192 to an alarming 205.

This is a civil rights issue as well as one of safety. African-American pedestrians are at 50 percent more risk than pedestrians who are white, and people walking in lower-income neighborhoods die at 2.5 times the rate as those in wealthier areas. Older adults are also at disproportionately high risk of being struck and killed.

Roadway design is a contributing factor in every collision. And while Florida has made strides to adopt policies for safer streets, it will take decades of work to turn those policies into changes in the way streets are built and operated.

A crucial opportunity is coming up to fund this work. President Donald Trump and House Democrats recently agreed to invest $2 trillion in infrastructure. Trump and the Democrats gave few details about how they intend to spend this money. That means advocates in the Tampa Bay region should say loudly and clearly that they want to see it go to safety projects.

In addition, in the next several weeks Congress will consider its next major transportation bill, an event which happens only once every several years. This will be an opportunity for the Tampa Bay region's congressional delegation — including Reps. Ross Spano, Gus Bilirakis, Charlie Crist and Kathy Castor — to bring home funding for pedestrian safety projects in Tampa Bay, as well as a chance to help communities across the country who are facing similar trends.

The bill will be a chance for Tampa Bay's representatives to prioritize the lives and safety of everyone who walks in the region. Creating a federal Complete Streets policy, requiring states to plan, design, fund and maintain safer streets, as well as holding states accountable for reducing fatalities are all ways the upcoming bill could do that. I encourage Tampa's members of Congress not to miss this chance to direct resources to greater Tampa Bay's ongoing need to protect people who are biking and walking.

Emiko Atherton is director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, and Beth Osborne is director of Transportation for America.