LARGO — As more emphasis is placed on the future of downtown, the scope and budget of a project that aims to make roadway and other improvements to that section of West Bay Drive are getting larger.
A representative from the engineering consultant hired to create the design plans, Pennoni Associates, recently presented city commissioners with a status update and sought input on how to proceed with a new part of the $2.3 million project that could require an additional $600,000 for lighting.
According to Barry Westmark, a senior engineer with the city, the project on the half-mile section of West Bay Drive between Missouri Avenue and Clearwater-Largo Road will repair the pavement and include two midblock crossings, new ramps for the disabled, the replacement of damaged sidewalk and repair curb ramps and driveway/business entrance aprons.
According to Westmark, replacing the sidewalks means getting access to underground utilities that creates an opportunity to improve existing roadway and pedestrian lighting and enhance the image of the corridor.
"The intent was to make the lighting more useful, especially to pedestrians, but at the same time, do no harm to traffic," he said.
That led to three options:
• Retain the city-owned poles, which cost $50,000 every few years to repaint and will require refurbishment soon;
• Lease 40 new poles and fixtures from Duke Energy, which would likely cost about $475,000 over a 25-year span;
• Pay about $600,000 to a private manufacturer to buy 71 new poles and fixtures.
After reviewing the options, the consultants and city staff recommended purchasing new equipment because the current poles and Duke's are too high.
The current "light poles were never designed for pedestrian safety," Westmark said. "The mounting height of those poles is above the tree canopy, so the tree canopy effectively blocks that light."
Peter Nikolov, an engineer with Pennoni, said the initial intent was to lease from Duke, but its offerings — in terms of size and features — were too limited.
"What we quickly saw was that Duke Energy really didn't fit what the city was looking for this downtown corridor," he said.
Besides offering 18-foot concrete, non-graffiti poles, he said the private manufacturers' lighting also comes with extra features, such as 5G capabilities, fixed banner mounts and LED fixtures that can be controlled by the city and project light on the road in a different intensity than light on the sidewalk.
Pedestrian safety was a selling point for Mayor Woody Brown, who agreed with the rest of the commission to move forward with the private lighting.
"What's very important to me is that we have some pedestrian lighting," he said. "There's no pedestrian lighting really in the downtown area, and I think that's real important. It's uncomfortable to walk on West Bay Drive after it gets dark."
Since the stretch of road is in a Community Redevelopment District, City Manager Henry Schubert said they should be able to use tax increment financing funds to pay for the lighting.
Nikolov also broke down the rest of the project, which includes resurfacing the pavement and replacing the sidewalk on both sides of the road.
"It's going to provide a fresh look, and also allow any of the developments to go in there to also be able to match what's put in by this project," he said.
Commissioner Curtis Holmes wondered how they will keep those sidewalks intact as the oak trees lining the road continue to grow.
Nikolov said they would most likely have to remove tree grates, conduct some root pruning and install additional protections by the roots to minimize their movement.
"The idea right now is not to remove the trees out there but to work with the trees that are out there," he said.
Nikolov added the project will replace the existing street furniture that has been used since 2000.
"We're also going to integrate this with all of the other improvements that are going into the corridor to make sure there are some consistencies out there," he said.
Another way to improve pedestrian safety will be adding two midblock crossings with flashing beacons. He said one will be installed on the west side and one closer to the east side just west of the railroad tracks.
Commissioner Jamie Robinson is eager for the project to get underway.
"I'm ecstatic about what we're looking at doing down here," he said. "I've traveled walking downtown every weekend and it's in rough shape."
Nikolov said he and city staff will be seeking input from the public in May or June, and they hope to have plans completed by July.
If all goes smoothly, he said construction should begin in the fall.