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Two-way traffic is delayed for road

Eighteen blocks of Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street are one-way - a situation the city wants to change. But not right away.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 18, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Slowly, slowly, plans have unfolded. Fourteen months ago, the City Council gave them a vigorous thumbs-up.

But the idea of renewing two-way traffic on a section of Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street appears stuck again -- to the disappointment of business people along the major downtown corridor.

Money to pay for work on the mile-long strip is not in the proposed budget for the next fiscal year, city officials say.

Bad news, say entrepreneurs.

They say the omission delays renewed vigor in the street's heart and threatens the well-being of existing enterprises.

"We're just very frustrated," said Mark Taber, president of the MLK (Ninth Street) Business District, which stretches from 34th Avenue N to 26th Avenue S.

The project isn't dead, but is one of many waiting for funds, officials say.

"That project is competing with a lot of other projects as we finalize the program," said city engineer Mike Connors.

He said the job's permitting and design phases are about 75 percent finished. The cost to make the physical changes necessary for two-way traffic is estimated at $2.1-million, he said. A section of Eighth Street N would also change to two-way.

Connors said the two-way project is part of a funding category that includes flood reduction, major pavement maintenance, sidewalk and bridge repairs, traffic calming and intersection improvement.

At issue are 18 blocks between Ninth avenues N and S. The city converted them to one-way southbound traffic a generation ago. At the time, fashionable urban planning suggested one-way streets were the quick way to move people in and out of town.

Times have changed. Urban "villages" with a mix of shops, offices and restaurants are in, as are pedestrian-and-bike friendly downtown environments.

Business people along King Street say they want a more friendly street, too. They like two-way traffic because they believe it will encourage motorists to drive through the neighborhood at a less hectic pace -- and subsequently stop to shop or eat.

Now, "It's a speedway," said Dennis Bender, owner of the Chatterbox Grill, 59 King St. N.

"People can't see you. If there's two-way, people actually are going to stop right in front of my business, look around and see my business."

Friday morning during a non-rush hour, 185 vehicles passed the Third Avenue N intersection during a 15-minute span. They came in waves keyed to the rhythm of the Ninth Avenue N traffic light. Cars can go between 30 to 35 mph and, depending on traffic, whisk through lights at every intersection to Ninth Avenue S.

Most motorists barreled straight south Friday.

One stopped at George F. Young Inc., an engineering, architectural and planning firm. A man driving a city Leisure Services truck stopped to snag a takeout order at the Coney Island Sandwich Shop. Another driving a car from a privately owned appraisal firm stopped and stood on the sidewalk.

Empty storefronts dominate the street a few blocks south of the interstate spur's overpass. A few pedestrians, alone or in knots of three, ambled. Some cyclists passed, most using the sidewalk. Roofers were busy atop Coney Island and workers remodeled a building on Third Avenue N's southwest corner.

Trees shade the sidewalks in spots. The overall impression is one of a busy street for traffic, but otherwise drowsy.

Some businesses came to that section of King Street believing that it would become two-way, said Taber, the business district president.

"We've asked for acorn lighting, medians. Everybody is getting this and we're not," Taber said. "It's Dr. Martin Luther King Street. It should be dressed up and looking good. It should be the main route into midtown."

Bender, the Chatterbox owner, said he is struggling after putting about $50,000 into the restaurant 13 months ago, thinking the two-way pattern was coming. Real estate agent Janelle Quinn said potential commercial clients have been reluctant to lease on the street's one-way section.

City officials say there appears to be no political opposition to the two-way project.

"It think people are pretty solidly behind it," said City Council member Virginia Littrell. "It's a budget deal and everybody's concerned about the cost of it."

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