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Trail offers safest crossing

Published May 26, 2004

The Times editorial of May 18, Unacceptable danger for kids at crossing, did not mention the continuing work on the issue of the Ulmerton Road school crossing being done by the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization's School Transportation Safety Committee, which I chair.

Our committee reviewed this concern for the Ridgecrest Elementary School students in considerable depth.

Crossing Ulmerton Road (at 119th Street), which in its current configuration has a free-flowing frontage road on the north side, is not considered safe by residents and participating agencies.

In addition, the project to widen Ulmerton from a four-lane to a six-lane roadway may make crossing even more difficult during construction. Continuing communication with the Florida Department of Transportation and the other key players will determine if this crossing can be maintained during construction.

Even if the crossing is maintained and controlled by crossing guards during construction, this may not provide safe crossing during nonschool hours. However, this construction project will eliminate the frontage road and may make the intersection safer for pedestrian access when complete.

Our committee concluded we could not just say, "Kids will be kids." We as adults and government representatives are responsible for educating the children and residents of the community about where they should cross this roadway and why. We felt, based on all the information provided, that it was important that a safe alternative be provided.

The existing Pinellas Trail overpass located four blocks from the intersection in question provides the best and safest crossing of Ulmerton Road. As established by state statute, the countywide threshold for school-provided transportation services is a 2-mile walk to a school. This overpass is well within the established walking limits countywide.

The committee did acknowledge that more convenient connections are needed between the trail and the school. These will be considered to further enhance the connection to the trail that Pinellas County has already provided on the south side of Ulmerton Road.

The emphasis has been placed on this intersection as a school crossing. The intersection can probably be safely controlled by school crossing guards during the morning and afternoon school hours after and possibly during construction, but what about weekends and evenings? Children and residents cross Ulmerton Road to play football and other activities at the park, to visit the YMCA and to attend community functions. Unfortunately, we cannot provide school crossing guards 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the children use the trail for school access, they are more likely to use the trail for other activities that require the crossing of Ulmerton Road.

Until the road construction is complete and the frontage road is eliminated, the safest crossing for the residents and the schoolchildren is the existing Pinellas Trail overpass located only four blocks away. We have other schools that use overpasses for the crossing of major roads, such as Curlew Creek and Madeira Beach Elementary, as well as many other six-lane road crossings handled by school crossing guards.

I strongly believe that the School Transportation Safety Committee, which includes representatives from the School Board, Sheriff's Office and other governmental agencies, provided the most effective and safest crossing alternative for the children. If the respective agencies provide an alternate solution to the crossing, the committee will review any and all recommendations.

However, the most important conclusion we drew is that the community must be involved in the discussion with the responsible governmental agencies. A representative from the community participated in the committee meeting, and we will continue that dialogue with the residents. We will be meeting with the community so that a workable arrangement is in place for the beginning of the school year.

As always, I appreciate the efforts of the St. Petersburg Times in covering safety issues that affect the lives of our residents and our schoolchildren. Public education and awareness are the key elements in providing a safe and efficient transportation system for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists and our children as they travel to and from school.

The School Transportation Safety Committee will continue to serve as the group to facilitate cooperation and communication between the multiple agencies involved in the complicated issues related to transportation safety.

- Susan Latvala is chairwoman of the Pinellas County Commission and chairs the MPO's School Transportation Safety Committee.

[Last modified May 26, 2004, 01:00:46]

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