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DOT relents on no-pass zone

At first, the state said the zone was unnecessary. Lyle Collins disagreed. “Once I sunk my teeth into it, I said I’m not going to let go.”

[Times photos: Ron Thompson]
A persistent Lyle Collins persuaded the Florida Department of Transportation to create a no-passing zone on a highway that runs past his community. "I can't tell you how many close shaves I've had," he said..

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


INVERNESS -- They say you can't fight City Hall. Lyle Collins wouldn't know about that. But he knows you can fight the state Department of Transportation -- and win.

Last week, that agency granted Collins' oft-stated wish: It created a no-passing zone for the short stretch of State Road 44 E that runs in front of the East Cove on Lake Tsala Apopka residential development. That stretch is just east of Gospel Island Road.

Doesn't sound like much of a concession from the state. To Collins, however, it's nothing less than a matter of life and death.

To understand why Collins uses such stark terms, try doing what he and his neighbors must do every day: Turn out of East Cove onto SR 44, which is two lanes there.

One day, Collins turned right to head east. No problem -- until he looked up and saw a westbound car zooming in his lane, passing a slower vehicle in the westbound lane.

Collins steered into a ditch on the road's south side. "I am not the only one who's done it," he said during an interview last week.

Maybe the Department of Transportation's action will make such evasive action a thing of the past. Collins certainly hopes so.

The development is sandwiched between two no-passing zones. Also in that stretch are several residences, a few businesses, the Gospel Island fire station, the East Citrus Community Center and the Highway 44 Church of God.

Collins said drivers tired of being stuck behind slower vehicles often take advantage of the stretch to pass, even when such maneuvers are ill advised.

That is a dangerous situation, Collins said, especially when the speed limit is 55 mph, and especially when there is limited room for drivers to get out of an irresponsible driver's way. Traffic from the community center, where elderly people gather for lunch and activities, seems particularly at risk.

There have been several accidents in that area, including a fatal wreck Jan. 17, 2000.

"I can't tell you how many close shaves I've had," Collins said.

Collins and his wife, Joan (pronounced Joanne), moved to their home in 1988 from Toledo, Ohio. He retired as chief payroll clerk at the Jeep Corp., now part of DaimlerChrysler; she was a retired school teacher. Together, under the stage name West Virginia Sweethearts, the Collinses play country and gospel music at churches and nursing homes.

"The traffic wasn't all that bad then. It's just progressively gotten worse," Collins said. His neighbors largely agree, and have encouraged him at homeowners' association meetings to continue battling the state.

Collins knows that SR 44 E is slated for widening and improving. Indeed, the state's most-recent work plan calls for construction to begin in 2002 or 2003.

But Collins didn't want to wait. He launched what he called Project East Cove Safety in November with a letter to the state asking for a no-passing zone. The state investigated the request and turned Collins down, saying traffic volume in the area is relatively low and that sight distance for drivers is reasonable, among other reasons.

Collins kept the heat on, writing a reply letter and sending copies to elected officials. "Once I sunk my teeth into it, I said I'm not going to let go," he said.

In response, the state conducted a vehicle spot speed study and found that the 55 mph speed limit remained appropriate. However, even though the facts had not changed, the further study also yielded a different decision concerning the no-passing zone.

"The Department will install a no-passing zone on State Road 44 between the curve west of Sunfish Avenue and (Eden) Garden Avenue," wrote Alan L. Gilbronson, assistant district traffic operations engineer.

"There's no earthly reason why it shouldn't be done," Collins said. "And I'm just grateful that they finally saw it my way. I'll be more grateful when they start the project."

Collins still hopes the state will reduce the speed limit, even when construction crews make the highway four lanes.

"Eventually it will need a stoplight," Collins said. "For now, I'll settle for this."

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