UF input disrupts debate on road

Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 12:20 a.m.
An expanded grid network of roads - not a wider road - will adequately handle the anticipated traffic with a proposed mega-development planned for north of Butler Plaza, a transportation study released Thursday shows.
But the University of Florida may throw a monkey wrench into the debate of whether to two-lane or four-lane SW 24th Avenue and SW 62nd Boulevard - two roads expected to create a north-south corridor between The Oaks Mall and Butler Plaza.
For several years now, the county has been honing the designs to rebuild SW 24th Avenue - now a narrow limerock road - as a two-lane road with roundabouts. Residents originally fleshed out the idea during a visioning charette about four years ago.
That was before developer Clark Butler announced plans to supersize his mile-long shopping center on land bordered to the north by SW 24th Avenue.
And that was before UF officials took a second look at the bigger picture.
A four-lane road would work better for the future, helping to move traffic heading to the university, to Butler's proposed regional shopping center and to a student city of apartments planned just south of SW 20th Avenue, said Ed Poppell, UF's vice president of finance and administration.
He is also the university's representative on the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization, the board that decides how to spend state money for roads.
It also could fit in with UF's master plan to create a pedestrian-friendly corridor in front of Shands at UF by diverting vehicles away from Archer Road onto SW 16th Avenue, which UF would like to see extended as an east-west connector into Hawthorne Road. That too, Poppell said he believes, could help spur an economic boom on the east side of town.
"UF wants to promote a vision that recognizes where we've been and where we need to go," Poppell said. "Let's not put in a two-lane road that doesn't anticipate that Gainesville is going to be a vibrant community."
Poppell believes so strongly in the idea that he has called a private meeting next week with County Manager Randy Reid, Gainesville City Manager Wayne Bowers, County Commission Chairman Rodney Long and Butler.
But UF could be stirring up a firestorm by weighing in on two highly controversial road projects - SW 24th Avenue and the extension of SW 16th Avenue.
And it may not matter that the state's flagship university sits squarely between a burgeoning west side and a lagging east side.
Many residents living on the east side have come out repeatedly against extending SW 16th Avenue through an environmentally sensitive area.
Others aren't too crazy about the idea of building a road that would primarily benefit a developer. Even so, the MTPO, prior to the election of two new commissioners on the County Commission, approved moving forward with construction of SW 24th Avenue as a two-lane road.
Yet Butler, who did not return phone calls Thursday, complained in November that the two-lane segments wouldn't be able to accommodate the traffic associated with the major shopping center expansion he has planned. He even threatened to withhold the $2 million he promised more than 1 years ago to help the county pay for the road projects unless the county constructed a four-lane road.
So after urging from Butler, the board agreed to consider the results of a new traffic study - paid for by Butler - that looked at how congested the road would be if Butler built 1.2 million square feet of retail space, 200,000 square feet of office space and 150 hotel rooms.
An Orlando firm called Renaissance Planning Group performed the study. It concluded that if the county constructs several of the road improvements it has planned for the area to create a grid network of roads, then SW 24th Avenue and SW 62nd Boulevard would work just fine for the next 20 years as two-lane roads.
"Based on our technical analysis, it showed a four-lane road provided no additional benefit," said Kevin Tilbury, a transportation planner with Renaissance.
It is unclear what will happen next. The MTPO is scheduled to consider the traffic studies at its meeting in February.
As of Thursday evening, County Commissioner Long said he had yet to closely examine the traffic studies.
But he said he would be willing to entertain a number of scenarios, including encouraging an annexation by the city of Gainesville and allowing Butler to pay for the two extra lanes. The county is about $7.3 million short on money to complete SW 24th Avenue and SW 62nd Boulevard.
"The whole issue comes back to funding," Long said. "Who pays?"
Janine Young Sikes can be reached at (352) 337-0327 or sikesj@gvillesun.com.

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