New Proposal: Build Rail Overpass Near Amtrak Station, Not Munn Park

Since plans for a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks near Munn Park got little support when unveiled earlier this year, a new idea has emerged for the $7 million that had been budgeted for it:

Build a walkway from the side of the tracks where the Amtrak station overlooks Lake Mirror and the Catapult 2.0 business incubator is being built to the side of the tracks where a lot of new growth is expected.

Among the projects anticipated just north of the tracks:

  • Community. Plans are being drawn for a residential and retail development on 10+ acres owned by the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency.
  • Parking garage. An area east of Lakeland police headquarters is one of the primary sites being considered for a new downtown parking garage.
  • Transportation hub. A potential “intermodal facility,” possibly on the bottom floor of the garage, would allow the Citrus Connection to depart its outdated Florida Avenue terminal, freeing that site for private development.

The idea to pursue another overpass won the endorsement of the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority board Thursday morning.

The official request that the Florida Department of Transportation transfer funds to another overpass project needs to come from the Lakeland City Commission, which is tentatively scheduled to vote on the issue Aug. 21.

The LDDA board passed four motions unanimously following a presentation by city of Lakeland transportation planner Chuck Barmby. In addition to the new overpass location, the board:

  • Recommended that DOT not build an overpass at Kentucky Avenue but pursue less costly safety enhancements, such as gates to prevent pedestrians from getting close to passing trains.
  • Recommended that DOT hold off on building a rail overpass at New York Avenue until a two-way bicycle path is built nearby and Lake Wire pedestrian improvements are farther along.
  • Supported a study of a DOT-funded intermodal facility behind LPD headquarters.

A map prepared by the city Community Development Department shows two potential overpass locations: one landing just west of the Amtrak station and one landing just west of Catapult 2.0.

Map of potential overpass locations
Potential overpass locations: Red route lands near Amtrak.Purple route lands near Catapult 2.0. Provided by Lakeland Community Development Department

Some might question the Amtrak alternative since the service’s future in Florida is in doubt; cuts proposed by the Trump administration threaten train service in Lakeland, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said in May. But transportation planners point out that a connection between a transportation hub and the station would be ideal if Orlando’s SunRail commuter service is extended to Lakeland.

Steve Scruggs, president of the Lakeland Economic Development Council, which oversees Catapult, was briefed on the idea of a transportation hub on the other side of the rail tracks from Catapult and he said he supports it.

While the LEDC has no official position on the location of an overpass, Scruggs said he sees a strong argument for locating it closer to Massachusetts Avenue to get commuters nearer to downtown businesses. He said the LEDC would cooperate if DOT wants to use Catapult property for an overpass landing and a walkway to the Amtrak station.

The idea for an intermodal transportation facility has the support of Tom Phillips, director of Lakeland’s Citrus Connection public transit system. He sees it as a hub for Citrus Connection buses, Greyhound buses, taxicabs and passengers using the nearby train station. In a similar vein,  the new Gow Fields Park and Ride on U.S. 98 near I-4 serves carpoolers, local bus riders and inter-city Megabus passengers.

Creation of a transit hub would allow the Citrus Connection to migrate away from the terminal at 200 N. Florida Ave., which Phillips says presents logistic and safety issues.

The move would add a few minutes to the Florida Avenue Route 1 but have negligible impact on other routes, he said.

Opinions about an intermodal transportation hub were mixed when the idea was presented to LDDA board members.

Greg Sanoba questioned the noise impact of bus traffic on Bay Street and the visual impact on the Lake Mirror area. Chair Grant Miller said after the meeting he supports the Citrus Connection presence there but questions whether Greyhound buses should be given a berth at the facility.

Eric “Bro” Belvin asked staff whether a transport hub would harm the mixed-use development planned for the CRA’s 10+ acres north of the tracks.

Framework Group, the company chosen by the CRA to develop the project, “thinks it’s a fantastic idea,” CRA Director Nicole Travis replied. Pressed about potential Greyhound traffic, she said, “Now there’s six buses a day and they (Framework) don’t have a problem with it.”

Travis added later in the meeting, “Investment follows public transportation. For us to not have an overpass there would be shortsighted.”

The Citrus Connection’s Phillips suggested a shoe-string transport hub could resemble the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach where the open-air bottom level of the parking garage is dominated by bus bays, electronic route signs and a small air-conditioned ticket booth. A small air-conditioned lobby for elderly and disabled passengers would be a nice addition in a Lakeland hub, he said.

On the high end, a Florida version of the Rochester, N.Y., transport hub would be fully enclosed and air conditioned with fans designed to divert and dissipate bus exhaust.