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No light for tricky Eckerd intersection

Residents plead their case for a light in vain, as DOT says the criteria for a signal just aren't met.

By ANDREW MEACHAM

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite a petition with 600 signatures and months of lobbying, residents and frequent visitors to Eckerd College will not get a traffic light on 54th Avenue S any time soon.

But at a meeting Friday with state Department of Transportation officials, many neighbors at least got a chance to air their grievances.

Organizers of the meeting, which drew more than 50 to the college's Continuing Education building, had braced themselves for the worst. Drivers turning into or out of Eckerd College at 4200 54th Ave. S must overcome eastbound traffic from the Pinellas Bayway. The task frightens many who say those cars often travel at speeds well above the posted 45 mph speed limit.

"It's a tragedy waiting to happen," said Bob Shepherd, 74, a retired trade representative for the U.S. government who is one of about 350 members of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College. ASPEC members come and go from campus several times a day, he said, sharing the road with undergraduates and faculty.

Several members of Senior College and Elderhostel, two separate organizations both based at Eckerd, said that dealing with younger, impatient drivers is stressful enough without the risks of oncoming traffic. There are more than 3,300 registered vehicles on campus and an estimated 400 bicycles, according to figures posted by the meeting's organizers.

The DOT is studying the intersection, but traffic volume counts there are far from meeting the criteria for installing a signal. Left-turn numbers would have to reach 105 for each of eight hours monitored, said DOT traffic engineer Steve Fox. Left turns are often a focal point in traffic studies because the left turn is considered the most challenging for drivers, Fox said.

When the department monitored the Eckerd entrance on Feb. 1, the highest hourly number of cars turning left was 67, between 5 and 6 p.m.

Officials also like to see delays of 60 seconds or more before they consider putting in a traffic light. The average left-turn wait out of Eckerd was 42 seconds. For more than an hour, Fox answered some tough questioning from the crowd, many of them senior residents of Dolphin Cay, Isla del Sol and College Landings.

"We're worried about our nerves and our lives, and you're throwing national criteria at us," said John Khosh, who lives in Dolphin Cay and teaches health and disease at Senior College and Elderhostel. More than half of the Federal Highway Administration's 11 criteria for traffic signals concern volume. But one criterion also cites five accidents within a year that could have been avoided by a traffic signal.

A DOT study from January 1998 to February 2001 reported eight accidents, none of them fatal, at or around the Eckerd entrance. Only two of those could have been averted with a traffic signal, Fox said.

Fox admitted that traffic from the Bayway can be daunting, but he said traffic studies only measure volume on side streets.

"If you based it on volume from the main street, every intersection on 34th Street would have a traffic signal," he said.

Fox also used the intensity of eastbound traffic as an argument against the light, saying it would increase the number of rear-end collisions among cars coming over the rise just west of the toll booth and suddenly having to stop.

A light also would hinder traffic attempting to enter 54th Avenue S from 41st Street, which would have to compete with backed-up cars, Fox said, and reduce the overall efficiency of traffic flow around the Eckerd entrance.

"There are probably a thousand locations in our district (without signals) that have conditions worse than this intersection," Fox said. In fact, the Eckerd entrance once had a traffic signal. It was removed in 1992 due to low traffic volume.

People at the meeting countered that the number of accidents is higher than the DOT knows because many people do not call the police. Some said they were so intimidated by the prospect of turning left out of Eckerd that they have traveled to 41st Street and made a U-turn.

Fox and Alan Gilbronson, an FDOT engineer who attended the meeting, pledged to continue studying the intersection and suggested other improvements.

These included widening the radius for eastbound motorists turning right into the college, and removing landscaping that partly obscures the view for those turning right out of the campus onto 54th Avenue S. Fox also mentioned marking turn lanes more clearly in the median, so cars waiting to enter the campus are clearly separated from those trying to re-enter 54th Avenue S.

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