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Redesign of University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street corridors entering next phase

The Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) for the Gainesville Urbanized Area met on Monday to discuss the latest plans to improve one of Gainesville’s busiest intersections — University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street.

In the past five years, there have been more than 175 crashes involving a pedestrian or bicyclist along both University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street.

Approximately 86% of these crashes resulted in an injury or fatality. These crashes, injuries and fatalities resulted in the city partnering with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the University of Florida to conduct studies for these two traffic corridors.

“The objective [of the studies] was to figure out how to transform these corridors into complete streets that facilitate safe and comfortable travel for all users,” said Ali Brighton, project manager at Kimley-Horn.

Since the corridor studies began in 2021, there have been several significant improvements already made along University Avenue. These include a speed limit reduction from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour, new traffic signals at 19th Street and 16th Street, and two midblock crossings that are under construction near the football stadium.

Brighton said the next steps are to get feedback from stakeholders and the public and refine recommendations based on that to finalize the Northwest 13th Street design.

The inquiry is a project development and environment study (PD&E), which is part of a formal environmental and engineering process developed by the FDOT in response to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Its goals are to increase roadway safety and prioritize people versus cars, focus on safety and speed management, and enhance accessibility for cyclists, pedestrians and modes of transit, all while coordinating with key stakeholders and engaging the public.

In January 2023, the PD&E study led a series of six corridor walks along different sections of the study area, which included about 60 intersections along University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street. During these walks, which cost around $1 million, participants were asked their opinion on safety, their level of comfort, traffic concepts and potential improvements. The responses were evaluated and analyzed to identify potential improvements based on specific trends along the corridor.

“We had between 25 and 50 people in attendance for each of the six walks for a total of over 140 participants over a series of days,” Brighton said. “We received input from all user types with varied prospectives and priorities to inform our concept refinement.”

Overall, participants said they felt vehicle speeds were high along these corridors and were in favor of bicycle and pedestrian improvements, including wider sidewalks, midblock crossings, protected bike lanes and landscape buffers. Participants also expressed a desire to balance non-motorized user comfort with automobile network performance.

The studies were followed by proposed roadway improvements on University Avenue, adjacent to UF’s campus, and Northwest 13th Street, including wider sidewalks, raised medians and lane reductions with one lane in each direction at turn lanes and key intersections. The added space from the lane reduction makes way for a two-way cycle track, which is expected to reduce bicycle accidents.

Alachua County Commissioner Mary Alford expressed concern over how repurposing lanes would affect public transportation. She said a dedicated bus lane would move public transit along faster and questioned whether this would fit into any of these scenarios.

“If we can push forward another segment of this project, we will.” Brighton said. “But because of the reduced funding we have for implementation, the interim solution is a lane reduction.”

Brighton said the redesign plan was why the city of Gainesville was awarded a Safe Streets and Roads for All (SS4A) grant in 2023. The city of Gainesville added a $2 million local match to the $8 million grant, which makes the total $10 million. Interim improvements can be installed using the $10 million until the full redesign is approved by the board.

“The city is currently working on an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration and will use additional funding for full implementation in the future,” Brighton said.

Alachua County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said she worries about emergency vehicles getting through narrow lanes on their way to UF Health Shands Hospital. Brighton assured commissioners that fire rescue trucks and ambulances can access the raised medians, bypassing cars and avoiding any trees along such medians en route to the hospital.

After analyzing data showing traffic patterns over five years along University Avenue and Northwest 13th Street, Brighton detailed a traffic and crash analysis that predicted how the corridors will operate in the years between 2030 and 2050. The results of these analyses include a delay at each intersection and 30 minutes of increased travel time. The data also showed a decrease in the number of crashes of all types and a decline in severity levels along the corridors.

Alachua County Commissioner Ken Cornell said it’s important to convince the FDOT that the city of Gainesville is not merely a place for people to drive through.

“The University of Florida is ‘the’ place,” Cornell said. “I know people need to get past ‘the’ place sometimes, but we are not the drag race throughway.”

Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward finds travel time to be dubious in this case. He stressed that Brighton’s proposal concerns human lives, and that’s what should matter as the proposition moves forward. He said he never wants to speak with the parents of a child whose life was lost on these corridors ever again.

“What is the trade-off between lives and travel time?” Ward said. “I get that it’s important to move trucks down University Avenue, but the longer we wait, the more death there is on our streets.”

Kristin Young, speaking on behalf of Gainesville Citizens for Active Transportation, pointed out that there has been an urge to change the traffic pattern of these corridors since 2010.

“We’re going on two decades of this uphill battle with regulations regarding redesign plans; the longer we wait, the more expensive it’s going to get,” she said.

According to Young, the momentum behind this project is knowing that one of the students killed would have graduated last year and one would have been graduating this year.

“They’re friends… they’re sorority sisters… they’re classmates,” Young said. “We owe it to them to not let this passion dwindle.”

Linda Dixon, UF’s director of planning, acknowledged the disruptions to traffic of construction as changes on Northwest 13th Street begin.

“There’s a sense of urgency around campus to get this done,” she said. “But with urgency comes patience with the process, and UF faculty and staff are encouraged to accept that.”

Lauren is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.