Survey and Public Forum in June Will Collect Comments on South Florida Avenue Road Diet

People can tell the city of Lakeland and the Florida Department of Transportation what they want to see done on South Florida Avenue between downtown and Dixieland in a June survey followed by a public forum at the RP Funding Center.

City and FDOT officials already know what many people want done: Swift extraction of the concrete curbs that have reduced about a mile-long stretch of the state highway to three lanes since April 2020 as part of FDOT’s $1.7 million South Florida Road Diet Pilot Project.

But Lakeland city commissioners wondered Friday if most people understand that South Florida between Ariana and Lime streets will never be the way it was — two northbound lanes, two southbound lanes, a center turning lane — before the temporary curbs were installed.

“It is never going back to the four lanes” and a turn lane, Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley said.  “The expectation is it won’t be the way it was.”

In March, FDOT finished collecting traffic volume and patterns data five months later than originally planned. The commission requested the October 2020-October 2021 trial be extended to March 2022 after FDOT estimated the pandemic reduced traffic by 5% to 10% during the pilot project’s first five months. 

Lakeland Director of Communications Kevin Cook told the commission during Friday’s agenda review meeting that FDOT is completing its analysis of the data, which wlll be made publicly available on the city’s website and on the department’s project webpage.

The next step in the process, he said, is a “month-long education campaign” starting May 9 followed by two weeks’ collecting public comments in a survey. After the survey concludes, a public forum will be held in late June at the RP Funding Center; the date has not been decided yet.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden said the commission and city officials need to be thoughtful in how they frame survey questions to elicit “something constructive” other than, “I just hate the road diet.”

McCarley cited the advice of a former English teacher in calling for survey questions to “be specific, be specific, be specific.”

The traffic data analysis and education campaign should define what can be done and refine what people think should be done, Cook said. 

It’s no secret that road diet is unpopular with many. “Our customers, our citizens, have no trouble telling us how they feel on social media,” he said.

Lakeland Transportation & Development Review Manager Charles Barmby, calling South Florida’s passage through Dixieland “a very complicated area,” said the city and FDOT will provide ample accessible data to give people all they need to understand all options.

The city will have interactive maps for people to see all intersections, documented traffic volumes on South Florida, and traffic patterns on nearby roads, he said. 

“Having that visual and ability to zoom in” for closer looks should help people see what the options are, Barmby said.

Before launching the project, FDOT estimated reducing South Florida from five to three lanes would divert 2,000-5,000 vehicles a day to other streets, increase driving times through the Dixieland corridor by 17 to 50 seconds, and reduce vehicular crashes by 30 percent.

South Florida’s five lanes through Dixieland, where businesses and homes crowd sidewalks within feet of passing traffic, span only 46 feet from curb-to-curb. 

As a result, sideswipes between vehicles that pass dangerously close to pedestrians on sidewalks were common. Cars have crashed into businesses, including Bomar Trophy and the Oates Building. 

According to FDOT, 174 crashes occurred within the corridor between 2011 and 2014 with 75 percent involving injuries. The Polk Transportation Planning Organization also identifies this South Florida span as a Top 10 crash corridor. 

Among options that have surfaced since the city of Lakeland in 2016 began working with the FDOT on the pilot project:

  • Make curbs permanent and extend them further north from Lime Street to Pine Street.
  • Remove the middle turn lane, making South Florida a four-lane highway with two lanes in each direction, similar to Lakeland Hills Boulevard. 
  • Install medians between the two lanes in each direction, restricting where vehicles can turn.
  • Four lanes with on-street parking in the Dixieland corridor allowed evenings and weekends. 
  • Restrict truck traffic on this span of South Florida.
  • Make South Florida a one-way, three-lane roadway directing traffic north into the city. New York and Missouri avenues could be networked together to create a paired one-direction road for vehicles heading south. 

Madden said survey questions need to be framed in a way that asks “what could be better rather than, ‘I hate it, I love it.’ It’s hard to get past (people’s) frustration” but the goal is to find “constructive criticism that will help us to go forward.”