City and state transportation planners have coalesced around a vision for the future of South Florida Avenue that includes two 10.5-foot travel lanes and an 11-foot center strip of turn lanes with some medians. Twelve-foot-wide landscaped sidewalks shared by pedestrians and bicyclists would replace the current narrow walkways and temporary concrete barriers on both sides of the street.
On Friday, Lakeland city commissioners signaled they are prepared to endorse that vision. They unanimously asked their staff to prepare a resolution approving their staff’s recommendation endorsing the three-lane option for the Dixieland portion of the state road — officially State Road 37 — that bisects the city.
Mayor Bill Mutz said the plan accomplishes multiple goals: “This iteration is attempting to address safety. It’s attempting to revitalize an area in terms of its ability to be more thriving economically for pedestrians to walk through. It is an attempt to push traffic off to other corridors at the same time so that it’s not being used as a thoroughfare through going downtown.”
The resolution is tentatively scheduled to be considered by the commission at its Dec. 19 meeting at 9 a.m. at Lakeland City Hall. The resolution will constitute the city’s recommendation to the Florida Department of Transportation, which has ultimate say in the future of the state highway.
The decision on the future of South Florida Avenue is not a binary choice involving only whether drivers can get through the corridor more quickly, Mutz said. “Most people negative about this realignment are negative because they can’t get through as fast as they used to get through. That’s the goal. The goal is lower speeds. The goal is more safety.”
The commission’s vote to draft a resolution came at the end of a workshop Friday on the findings of a multi-year pilot project to consider the impacts of reducing South Florida Avenue from five lanes to three between Ariana and Lime Streets.
The meeting opened with members of the city Community and Economic Development Department presenting a summary of their findings:
After initially considering 10 options for configuring South Florida Avenue, traffic planners with the Florida DOT and the city of Lakeland narrowed the choices to two:
- The three-lane option that was chosen.
- A no-build option that would convert Florida Avenue to four 11-foot lanes without turn lanes and retaining the current 6-foot sidewalks.
A return to five lanes would be impossible because the resulting 8.5- to 9-foot lanes would not meet current standards, according to L.K. Nandam, the professional engineer who heads Florida DOT’s District One office.
The City Commission originally called for a study of the South Florida alignment — then referred to as a road diet — in 2017 because of safety concerns surrounding the narrow lanes and calls to improve economic development in the Dixieland area.
The lane reduction has had both detractors and proponents among business owners in the Dixieland area. In a Ledger article, owners or managers of Bent’s Schwinn Cycling, Subs ‘n Such and Clippership Barber Shop said the lane reduction has also reduced their business. Meanwhile, owners of Born & Bread Bakeshouse, Krazy Kombucha and Hillcrest Coffee made videos praising improvements in safety and neighborhood connectivity.
Proposals to make the lane reductions permanent have been endorsed by the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association, the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, Historic Lakeland Inc. and the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Authority.
City staff recommendations
Chuck Barmby, the city’s planning and transportation manager outlined staff recommendations at Friday’s meeting:
- Retain three lanes as “the best option to achieve the community’s goals.”
- Replace the temporary concrete barriers with wide sidewalks. Based on feedback from cyclists, the staff is not recommending dedicated bicycle lanes.
- Improve intersections and make crosswalks more visible.
- Evaluate the merge areas at the south and north ends of the corridor. “Those are the areas where we still receive the greatest number of complaints,” he said.
- Consider an on-demand pedestrian signal at Belmar Street to assist with connectivity between the business district and the Lake Morton neighborhood.
- Seek DOT support in making the Peach Line bus route permanent to preserve neighborhood stops in Dixieland and South Lake Morton.
- Add one or two pullouts on South Florida Avenue for Gold Line bus stops.
- Remove tractor-trailers and trucks over six wheels from South Florida Avenue, diverting them onto Harden and Sykes Boulevards.
- Increase law enforcement for speeders and aggressive drivers on nearby neighborhood streets.
- More traffic calming on side streets such as speed humps on Hibriten Way, restoring bricks on Belvedere Street, and placing raised crosswalks on Hillcrest Avenue at Missouri and New York Avenue.
The city Community and Economic Development staff has reviewed more than 4,000 messages from the public about the lane reduction. The largest number were submitted to a DOT survey, but they also came via social media, email and written comments during a public forum, according to Cindy Glover, the department’s community engagement coordinator.
Just under half of the messages were categorized as negative, with 26% positive and 25% neutral. In general, people who lived and worked closer to the corridor “tend to be more supportive of the project. Commuters tend to be more critical,” she told commissioners.
The main criticisms (with the city staff’s responses to them in parentheses):
- South Florida Avenue is the only direct route from north Lakeland to south Lakeland or vice versa. (Sykes Boulevard is a good alternative though there is not a good bypass system yet.)
- The road diet pilot project increased traffic on side streets. (The city did traffic counts and found the roads operate well overall but that a few aggressive drivers need to be dealt with.)
- The concrete barriers are ugly. (The city staff agrees but points out they were never meant to be permanent.)
- Left turn lanes are needed at several intersections, including Orange Street, Frank Lloyd Wright Way and East Belmar Street. (That’s something that could be pursued.)
- We rarely see pedestrians or bicyclists. (The pilot project was about testing the effects of the lane reduction; no amenities have been provided for pedestrians or bicyclists yet.)
- The road test was costly. (Alternative testing methods — including barrels, a low barrier wall or computer modeling — would not have been significantly cheaper.)
The main supportive comments involved:
- Appreciation for wider travel lanes
- Pedestrians feel safer with more space between them and the street.
- Slight delays in travel time are a worthwhile tradeoff for feeling safer while driving.
- Looking forward to economic development effects
It will likely take the rest of the decade to design, fund and build the improvements, Barmby said. His presentation laid out this timeline:
- Design is likely to start in July 2023 and last until December 2024.
- Right-of-way planning will take six months starting in January 2025, and right-of-way purchases will likely will not conclude until the end of 2026 or the middle of 2027.
- Construction is expected to take 24 months.
If that schedule is maintained, the transformed roadway would be ready by the end of 2028 or mid-2029.
There is currently no funding in place for construction, but Barmby said he is confident it will be secured by the time building is projected to start.
Meeting video, prior coverage, study findings
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