ST. PETERSBURG — It all sounds like a good idea: safer streets that connect a healthier city by car, bike, foot and bus.
The city’s “complete streets” concept receives favorable reviews when discussed in transportation forums and council chambers. And while individual projects vary in specifics, they usually include elements such as a replacing a traffic lane with options for bikes or buses, widening sidewalks, slowing traffic speeds and adding enhanced crosswalks.
But discontent over the initiative has grown since redesigned Martin Luther King Jr. Street opened in October and more residents learned details of changes planned for First avenues N and S and 34th Street S. More people are speaking out as residents and business owners realize it's not just a single change on one street, but a focused city-wide strategy.
Opponents in matching red shirts attend City Council meetings in protest. Shop owners along King Street say business is down. Residents fill out comment cards saying the city is making "99% of people miserable" and asking officials not to remove traffic lanes.
"The mayor and the Department of Transportation pay attention to who they want to hear and ignore the voices they don't want to hear," said Dr. Ed Carlson, president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association and founder of Citizens Against Lane Loss. "We need to hit pause on complete streets until we can get citizen acceptable plans."
City officials say it's too soon to draw conclusions and that any changes take time to reap benefits. These are just the first steps in a 20-year plan aimed at making the city safer and more accessible for all modes of travel.
Tampa Bay consistently ranks one of the deadliest regions in the country for those who walk and bike. Complete streets is a way to change that while also helping the city attract businesses and residents who want to live in a walkable, bikable community, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said.
"We’re not proposing that we do lane reductions on every street around the city," Kriseman said. "But you’re never going to get people out of their cars and we're never going to have an impact on our carbon foot print and make our city safer if we just keep doing things the way we've always done."
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Melanie and Jim Eubanks have a clear view of King Street through the large glass storefront of their flower shop near 25th Avenue N. Rarely do they see anyone using the bike lanes the city added in October in place of a southbound travel lane.
But each day, Melanie Eubanks watches as cars start tapping on their brakes more than three blocks ahead of the stop light at 22nd Avenue. Sometimes, she hears squealing tires as cars slam on their brakes. It didn't used to be like that, she said.
"We've seen more accidents than bicycles," Jim Eubanks said.
Traffic reports from the city cite only three accidents with injury since officials converted a traffic lane on King Street between 30th and Fourth avenues N to bike lanes in October. Slightly more cars are driving along that stretch and it’s taking them an additional 90 seconds southbound in the evening, which is the street's busiest time of day, according to data from the city.
About 200 cyclists were counted using the lanes on a weekend day "with decent weather," transportation director Evan Mory said. The city did not provide numbers for other days or an average ridership count.
"We know this is an increase because very few people were comfortable riding their bikes in the street before the bike lanes were established," Mory said. Two hundred is “higher than either First Avenue N or S that we recently counted, and those bike lanes have been there for over 10 years."
Melanie Eubanks said she supports adding bike lanes and enhancing pedestrian options throughout the city. She just doesn't think it's a good fit for their stretch of road.
"This street isn't like central where we can ride our bikes and go to five different shops and a restaurant," Melanie Eubanks said. "You don't ride your bike to the floral shop or the pool store. You're not going to ride to a laundromat."
Business owners were hesitant to criticize the project, some saying they feared retribution from city officials if they spoke against the mayor's plan.
Bud Risser, 77, who owns a gas station on King Street said his business is down 15 percent this year. Risser spoke out against the road changes last summer, but said he and other business owners are inaccurately characterized as being "anti-complete streets."
"Complete streets starts off with a feel-good benefit. What a wonderful idea," Risser said. "But like any concept and any plan, the devil is always in the details. It's not the goal, it's how you implement the strategy."
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Residents and business owners are getting a taste of the mayor's vision for the city's streets as details on additional projects are released
Plans are underway for two more street redesigns in the next few years. First avenues N and S are scheduled to swap one lane in each direction for a bus-and-turn-only lane. Some parking also will be scrapped to make room for the buses, but bike lanes will remain in place. A similar lane is proposed for 34th Street S with wider sidewalks instead of bike lanes.
The city currently has about 130 miles in its bike network — including the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail — and hopes to add 100 miles more in the next 20 years.
Lane reductions like the ones on King Street and First avenues N and S account for about 20 percent of the bike and transit projects the city has mapped out over the next couple decades.
The majority of the projects are focused on making streets more accommodating for bicyclists and pedestrians by slowing speeds, adding shared lane markings (known as "sharrows") and creating neighborhood greenways.
But many times, residents hear about the projects one at a time or only after they are already open.
"I would like to see the whole big picture and not just these individual pieces," resident Tonya Wright-Gaskins said at a community meeting earlier this month. "They might get more buy-in from the community if they shared the whole vision."
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Claire Karas, 67, who lives in Maximo Moorings, said she's still adjusting to the new lane layout on King Street but that she sees the value of the project. All changes involve a re-education process, she said, and the willingness to think differently.
"Nobody likes change, we know that. But we obviously have a vested interest in safer streets," Karas said. "For me, the overall safer streets and a better sense of community are critical."
Karas was one about 60 people to attend an open house where city officials explained their plans to convert a traffic lane in each direction of 34th Street to a bus-and-turn-only lane. Regular traffic would be left with two lanes in each direction. The proposal also includes widening sidewalks and adding mid-block pedestrian crossings.
County transportation officials collected survey responses from 56 people. More than 80 percent said they supported wider sidewalks and additional crosswalks in the corridor between 22nd and 54th avenues S.
More than half supported converting the traffic lane to a transit and turn lane, but another third did not support the proposal.
"I'm okay with the safety aspect, but I would rather have more mid-block crossings and traffic enforcement," said Mark Calvert. "I'm not really convinced people are going to ride or walk or use transit in any great numbers to make this worth it."
Calvert said he thinks the city is making a mistake in investing so much in complete streets projects. Adding bike lanes and striping roads for transit use won't automatically increase the number of people who choose those options over their cars, he said.
Stephen Benson with the Department of Transportation stressed that complete streets looks different for every road and is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The state has joined with the city of St. Petersburg on multiple projects in hopes of cutting down on traffic deaths and providing more travel options.
"You have to make sacrifices and balance competing interests,” Benson said. “But, ultimately, the outcome should be a roadway that is safer and accommodates everyone using it regardless of how they’re getting around."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.