Ashley study: bad news for walkers

Traffic engineers say that making the street pedestrian friendly would cause traffic gridlock.

Published February 28, 2007

TAMPA - Traffic engineers studying whether to narrow downtown's Ashley Drive to make it pedestrian-friendly have come to a grim conclusion: It's too late.

Rush hour traffic from a rapidly growing downtown is likely to be backed up onto Interstate 275 within six years. And gridlock threatens, whether Ashley is six lanes wide or four.

That's the conclusion of a traffic study that a consultant recently did for the city. State officials are worried about the same thing.

But the report is getting a chilly reception from people who are interested in shrinking Ashley to four lanes as a step toward making downtown more walkable and livable.

"I believe the study is flawed in a number of ways, and we should not take it as gospel," said City Council member Linda Saul-Sena. "I say the needs of pedestrians should be considered more significant than the needs of drivers who are just cutting through downtown."

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the matter of Ashley Drive on Thursday morning. And a public hearing is planned for the near future.

But if the traffic study holds true, city and state transportation officials may eventually have to rethink how to get drivers into and around downtown.

The study, done by Fort Lauderdale transportation engineering firm Kittelson & Associates, concludes that by 2013, traffic jams from an overloaded Ashley Drive and Tampa Street will back up onto I-275 and lead to downtown gridlock.

It predicts the downtown street grid will be overwhelmed by a 40 percent increase in vehicles that will come with more than 10,000 new condos and an influx of retail and office space in the coming years.

The study suggests the city look for new ways to handle booming downtown traffic.

The state Department of Transportation has some of the same questions.

"We do have concerns that if Ashley was reduced from six lanes to four that it could back up onto the interstate," said department spokeswoman Kris Carson. "Even if the lanes are not reduced, there is a possibility that could happen."

Department planners have started looking at eventually diverting some downtown traffic to alternate routes, she said.

For at least the past year, city officials have been considering how to make Ashley Drive less hostile to pedestrians.

On the west side of Ashley, the city will be pouring tens of millions of dollars into a riverwalk, a new art museum, a children's museum and a waterfront park. That's also where the library and performing arts center are.

But downtown residents will be living east of Ashley, where a slate of condo high-rises are in the works. Yet crossing Ashley on foot can be daunting because it's wide and the traffic is fast.

"It's very important to explore what we can do to slow traffic down, including decreasing the lanes," Saul-Sena said.

She argues that the traffic study didn't consider factors such as possible mass transit and the likelihood that downtown residents may be walking around their neighborhood rather than always driving.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at 813 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.