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Two-way on MLK edging a bit closer

Officials are warming to a return of two-way traffic along the downtown stretch of Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It took a while to happen.

But for the first time last week, a few elected city officials strongly suggested they favor returning two-way traffic to a mile-long downtown stretch of Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) Street.

"This is an opportunity to fix what was bad planning on our part many years ago," said City Council member Jay Lasita.

The city's consultant, Tampa Bay Engineering, says a return to two-way traffic is possible from a traffic engineering standpoint.

Cost estimates range from $2.4-million to $5.9-million, depending on lane designs and the type of traffic signals used.

A fix couldn't come too soon for some businesses between Ninth avenues N and S, a strip officials made one-way southbound a generation ago.

They did it anticipating that a huge population growth would create traffic jams that one-directional flow could alleviate. At the same time, they made Eighth Street one-way northbound.

The one-way design has succeeded only in stifling business, entrepreneurs say.

"Absolutely," said Shamel Watson, assistant manager at Discount Auto Parts on M.L. King at Eighth Avenue N. "People drive by and they can't see us. If they're on the opposite side of traffic, they have to drive all the way around the block. It's terrible."

Ed Smoak has owned B's Pawn Shop at Third Avenue N for 28 years. He recalls the two-way days and said he has experienced more than a quarter-century of one-way regret.

"I couldn't give you a percentage (of lost business). But as soon as they one-wayed the street, we lost all of our walk-in traffic," Smoak said, referring to customers driving by the store and spontaneously deciding to stop.

Last week members of a council committee studying a return to two-way traffic seemed to like the idea, but they delayed sending it forward to the entire council.

They first want to see whether it can be accomplished in two phases: one phase to make M.L. King two-way as soon as possible, while changing Eighth Street a little later during a second phase.

Mark Taber is president of the MLK Business District. As council members, engineers and city staff discussed the conversion, Taber alternated between optimism and frustration.

"The businesses are dying on MLK," he told officials at one point. "Just go down the street. There's nothing happening."

After the committee adjourned, Taber shook his head. "Everybody wants it done. This bureaucracy . . . "

In a memo, Public Works Administrator George Webb pointed out a few issues that need resolution before final decisions are made.

One is that the Florida Department of Transportation must approve access to interstate ramps on both M.L. King and Eighth streets.

Another is that the city's comprehensive plan, which is a state-mandated blueprint for growth, will need changing.

And the Tampa Bay Devil Rays must approve any changes to the traffic management plan around Tropicana Field, which M.L. King helps feed.

Rick Nafe, the Rays' vice president for operations and facilities, suggested the team is willing to work with the idea.

"We've suggested the police study it and look at it," Nafe said. "If there's a way . . . you can make some of those streets one way during games to help facilitate traffic, we would have no problem with it."

Smoak said he doesn't understand why the process is taking so long.

"If we were going forward into the unknown where we were putting something new up, it'd be different. We're stepping into the past where things worked," the pawn shop owner said.

The council's public safety, public service and infrastructure committee is scheduled to take up the issue again May 31. A public hearing before the entire council is expected in June.

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