Polk Aims to Ease ‘Abysmal’ Pedestrian Safety Ranking With Grant

On Tuesday evening just before 9 p.m., 27-year-old Hector Daniel Lugo was trying to walk across busy U.S. 98 North near Griffin Road when he was hit by a car and then struck again by a second car, Lakeland police say . Paramedics rushed him to Lakeland Regional Health, where he died a short time later.

Lugo is just one of an average of 84 pedestrians or bicyclists killed each year on Polk County road ways, and one of at least three killed in Lakeland this year.

Now Polk County is angling to obtain part of a $5-6 billion federal grant to help make roadways safer in an area ranked as the 21st most dangerous in the U.S. to be a pedestrian, according to the most recent Smart Growth of America’s “Dangerous by Design” report on the epidemic of people struck and killed while walking.

Before Smart Growth changed its methodology this year, Polk ranked in the top 10 for multiple years in a row, according to Chuck Barmby, planning and transportation manager for the city of Lakeland.

Central Lakeland has the largest share of pedestrian-involved crashes of any part of Lakeland.
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Polk County for years has been “one of the top 10 most dangerous areas, not only in the state but in the country,” he said. “It is abysmal. If you take a look at the second worst state and double the numbers, that’s where Florida is. We’re always in the top 10.”

Barmby spoke to Lakeland city commissioners Friday morning during their agenda study meeting to ask the commissioners to pass a resolution next Tuesday that supports Polk County’s application for the “Safe Streets for All” federal grant.

Statistics show that in the five-year period ending in 2020, an average of 126 people died and 462 people were seriously hurt while traveling on Polk roadways.  An average of 84 pedestrians and bicyclists died each year between 2016 and 2020.

The Lakeland/Winter Haven metropolitan area is ranked 21 out of 101 in the study, with 99 pedestrian deaths between 2016 and 2020. The Florida Department of Transportation reports that these severe crash outcomes on Polk County roadways cost the economy an average of $1.75 billion a year in direct and indirect costs.

“Our fatalities are so horrific and part of it is policy making,” Lakeland City Commissioner Sara Robert McCarley said during Friday’s meeting. “People are just not using crosswalks.”

The study shows that nationally the number of people struck and killed while walking has been steadily increasing since 2009, reaching another new high in 2020 and likely a historic one in 2021. Pedestrian fatalities are up 62 percent since they began steadily rising in 2009 following years of improvement.

“The pandemic magnified what we’ve always known: Our nation’s streets are dangerous by design, designed primarily to move cars quickly at the expense of keeping everyone safe,” the report states. “The result in 2020 and 2021 was a significant increase in all traffic fatalities, even with less driving overall. This crisis will continue to get worse until those with the power finally make safety for everyone who uses our roads the top priority.”

Lakeland traffic engineer Theresa Schwartz said there have been 46 fatal or serious-injury crashes involving pedestrians or bicyclists in the past three years in Lakeland, including Lugo’s and at least two others this year.

On July 29, a 41-year-old Lakeland man died after being hit by a car involved in an accident with another car at South Crystal Lake Drive and Lowry Avenue at about 10:15 p.m. that Friday. Investigators say the man was placing a “garage sale” sign along the road.

On March 2, deputies and paramedics rushed to U.S. 92 about 100 yards west of Old Dixie Highway just before 9 p.m. after 37-year-old Ryan Simmons of St. Cloud was hit by a car as he tried to cross U.S. 92 in an area with little lighting and no crosswalk. He died at the scene.

Barmby is encouraging city commissioners to join other municipalities and the county to develop a Vision Zero Plan, with a goal to reduce pedestrian fatalities to zero. It will provide a consolidated crash database, identify important countywide conditions and trends, identify roadway fatality and incapacitating injury hot spots, and develop an initial set of “low-hanging fruit” projects within a 10-year planning horizon.

A pedestrian waits to cross Crystal Lake Drive at U.S. 98 Friday morning

While the initial Vision Zero Plan does continue to move the Polk Transportation Planning Organization forward in addressing the goal of the Vision Zero Plan, it does not provide all the elements required to apply for Safe Streets for All implementation grants in future years that would include things like capital road projects.

Barmby said in order to provide the missing required Vision Zero elements necessary to apply for an implementation grant and produce a robust Vision Zero Plan with highly competitive, quickly implementable projects, the 2022-2023 Action Plan funding will be used to, among other tasks:

  • Investigate severe crash, pedestrian and cyclist-involved crash hot spots already identified to better determine causes
  • Prepare for the implementation of proven strategies to eliminate existing severe-crash hot spots and prevent the creation of future crash hot spots in a cost-effective and lasting way
  • Fully engage and incorporate the feedback of the local communities and, where reasonable, the travelers within the existing and likely future crash hotspots
  • Assess the impacts of the recommended strategies for disadvantaged populations, who are more severely impacted, along with environmental impacts
  • Provide needed technical and material assistance in building upon and completing the existing Polk Vision Pedestrian and Bike Team Tactical Plan
  • Build on and further the process of eliminating the previously identified school area sidewalk gaps and further the process of preparing the already-identified unsafe corridors for safety improvements.

City Commissioner Stephanie Madden pointed out that Polk County’s major highways were laid out long ago, when farms, groves and ranches stretched out on either side of long roadways running from town to town.  But now those farms, groves and ranches are being turned into subdivisions that have one main entrance spilling into now-major highways.

“We can’t build our way out of it … I live two blocks from Lake Hollingsworth, but I can’t get there because Florida Avenue has become this monstrosity,” Madden said. “We are learning because of our job, but the population doesn’t know (why). They just know it’s hard to get to work … I think it’s incumbent upon us in this room to educate, at least, the citizens of Lakeland.”

Barmby said one way that can be done is if people attend the fifth annual Gulf Coast Safe Streets Summit on Nov. 3 at the RP Funding Center, which will bring national speakers, public officials, technical staff, sister counties and community partners together to share how to design and implement safe and equitable modes of transportation for everyone.

Participants will experience how different concepts, laws and ideas impact the safety of those around us and the designs of our transportation infrastructure. There will be hands-on experiences for participants so they can experience, for instance, being a visually impaired pedestrian.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd is scheduled to speak, along with Melissa Wandell, president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads. Her husband, Mark, was killed by a red-light runner in 2003 and she is largely responsible for the passage of red-light camera legislation in Florida, named for him.

“I promised my husband I would make a reason for what happened that night at the intersection,” Wandell has said publicly. “Safety does not happen by accident.”

The city commission is set to vote on the resolution at Tuesday morning’s meeting.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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