FDOT decided against signal at fatal crossing in 2011

TAMPA, Florida -- Years before Norma Velasquez-Cabrera was killed crossing Hillsborough Ave at the Meridian Pointe Apartments, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) conducted a study of pedestrian dangers at the same spot. However, the agency concluded at the time a new signal or mid-block crosswalks were not warranted.

Now, after three more students have been hit by vehicles in 2014, FDOT is responding to mounting political pressure with the announcement that a new signal is on the way.

Representatives from FDOT's District 7 told a room full of community leaders Tuesday that recent studies have concluded a signal is now warranted. In addition to the students hit in recent months, FDOT reports 22 people were hit along a small portion of Hillsborough Avenue from 2008 to 2012. Crosswalks are few and far between, while the number of residents continue to grow.

"The information that we provide (FDOT and the City of Tampa)," said concerned East Tampa resident Yvette Lewis, "it goes in one ear and out the other. Our voices are not being heard!"

Other FDOT critics echo Lewis' concern about foot-dragging and say the addition of a single traffic light, which could take 16 months to activate, isn't enough.

"If we can react this quickly to tragedy," said Tampa Councilwoman Lisa Montelione, "then why can't we act faster when we know tragedy is about to happen?"

Montelione points out hundreds of pedestrians run across Hillsborough Avenue each day -- likely a result of poor planning when residential and commercial properties were built up alongside the artery, once used primarily for industry. She says FDOT may talk about pedestrian safety, but its own guidelines do not make it a priority.

"(FDOT's) priority has changed. However, the transportation/technical manual has not," she said.

However, FDOT points to multi-million dollar education campaigns for residents and students in the area, indicating a considerable focus on pedestrian safety.

"When you look at the monies spent by the Department of Transportation on education, a lot has been done," said FDOT District 7 spokeswoman Kris Carson. "But we need to do more education out there. We know it may be inconvenient to walk to a crosswalk, but for safety reasons, we have to ask our community to do that."

Montelione says engineering is just as much to blame as education. From the Meridian Pointe Apartments, where Velasquez-Cabrera was killed and her sister was injured, it takes pedestrians nearly 13 minutes to walk down to the nearest crosswalk, cross the street, and walk back to the shopping plaza across the street. She says its no surprise residents take the 23-second walk across Hillsborough Avenue instead.

Furthermore, even FDOT's 2011 study indicated some of the jaywalking problem may be due to drivers "not yielding to pedestrians at signalized intersections along this section of roadway."

While FDOT followed many of its own 2011 recommendations for Hillsborough Avenue improvements, including better lighting, signage, and greater traffic enforcement, it has been challenged by the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to act quickly on further safety improvements.

A December 2013 report from the MPO suggests new crosswalks, a reduced speed limit, and changes to signal timing to better-facilitate pedestrian crossings along Hillsborough Ave.

Residents along Hillsborough Avenue, Fletcher Avenue, Fowler Avenue, and Busch Blvd. are among the county's least-reliant on automobiles, compounding the need for safe walkways.

The traffic signal at the Meridian Point Apartments is likely 16 months away, a "reasonable" time frame according to both Carson and Montelione. Land acquisition, utility placement, and signal arm construction are all time-consuming projects.

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