Transfer of University Avenue may face long road

A Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) official recently told the Gainesville City Commission that FDOT would be open to transferring control of a portion of University Avenue, but city officials say numerous obstacles could complicate and slow the process.

Calls to make University Avenue safer for pedestrians and cyclists—including short-term measures and a longer-term redesign—have become more urgent in the wake of the deaths of two UF students in separate car-pedestrian accidents this winter.

At the most recent Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO) meeting, Jim Hannigan, the District 2 traffic engineer for FDOT, told board members the department had talked with the city about jurisdictional transfer of portions of state roads and was “waiting to hear back on roads they would like and limits they would like.”

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Hannigan’s statement seemed to surprise the members of the joint city-county organization, who expressed cautious optimism about the offer.

“We are thankful for the willingness of the [FDOT] to engage with the city and the university and would ask all parties to keep an open mind as to what is in the best interest of all users on this very congested and highly used particular stretch of road,” Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe said at the meeting.

Although Hannigan’s presentation made it seem as if FDOT and the city simply need to “refine the specifics and move forward with the transfer,” city leaders say the process is more complex.

One example: A transfer would require the state to figure out how to reroute State Road 26—a portion of which is West University—so there’s not a gap in the state road grid.

Perhaps more importantly for city leaders, the state and city would have to determine how West University changes would be funded. Currently, most money for changes comes through state funds.

City Commissioner David Arreola said the joint city-county board has identified West University as its No. 1 pedestrian/bicycle priority for several years. But the state has provided no funding for a redesign of the corridor, which stretches alongside the University of Florida and separates the main campus from a busy business district.

“They’ve not funded it even in a design phase, which they would have to go through [to make certain changes],” Arreola, the outgoing MTPO chair, said in a phone interview.

Arreola said having jurisdictional control would be a benefit to the city in terms of being able to set the priorities for the road, but money is a factor.

“It’s really not cheap to overhaul a roadway,” he said. “In fact, it’s very expensive.”

David Arreola

He called the funding of a road redesign “a major sticking point.”

“It would be, for me, disappointing if the state decides after all these years of ignoring our priority funding request to just say ‘Well, now it’s also no longer going to be our road so we’re are not going to provide any funding to fix it,’” Arreola said.

City Manager Lee Feldman said the city could still get state grants for changes following a city takeover, but that transferring control is not a quick process—and may not be necessary.

“The city and the university have to collaborate to actually figure out what the road should look like from a design standpoint,” Feldman said. With a plan in hand, the city and university would then ask if the changes they want are allowed on state roads. If the answer is yes, the jurisdictional transfer may not be necessary, Feldman said.

“The FDOT has been willing to look at the [jurisdictional transfer] and that’s good because a lot of times they aren’t willing to entertain it,” Feldman said. “But at this point, we’re not ready to make the ask.”

Meanwhile, Gainesville has moved ahead with a study of West University and SW 13th Street. The commission approved a $168,000 contract with HDR Engineering to look at ways to redesign those roads using a “complete streets” model.

The city’s Campus Development Agreement Capital Projects Fund is paying for the study.

Gainesville used a complete streets road design—which takes into account all the users of a road, not just motorists—to revamp South Main, a two-year project completed in 2019. Complete street design can reduce both car accidents and pedestrian risk, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“Roads have traditionally been designed as a way to move cars with people taking a secondary position to that,” Feldman said. “You have to have a road that provides emphasis to pedestrians and cars in a different ratio.”

Changing that ratio becomes especially important in the University Avenue area because of the number of UF pedestrians crossing to reach businesses and homes on the other side.

“What it comes down to for Gainesville is that you can make a city that works for cars or that works for the people who live there,” City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, whose district includes a large section of West University, said in a phone interview. “I think we should make a city that works for the people who live there.”

The city won’t know the exact recommendations until the engineering study is done in five months.

In the MTPO meeting, the FDOT was asked about a complete streets-style redesign and Hannigan said it was “a little more problematic in this [University Avenue] area.”

He said the state likely didn’t have enough existing right of way for a complete streets-style redesign and as a result would have to look at reducing the number of lanes to accommodate that type of roadway design.

All the potential changes add up to a process that will take years.

“It is something that has to start now to make sure the process can move forward,” he said.

Arreola, whose district also includes parts of West University, said he understands the frustration of the Gainesville and university communities in wanting faster changes to the corridor.

“People need to keep up their voices and keep up their pressure because this is going to be a process and this is going to take more time,” Arreola said. “I think people calling for this change has made an impact so far, and I think it will continue to have an impact, but they have to believe it will change and an impact can be made.”

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