Welcome to life in the slow lane

Traffic on Newberry Road near the Interstate 75 underpass.

JARRETT BAKER/Special to The Sun
Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Being stuck in traffic is a good thing. Or so say local transportation planners.
Take Newberry Road as an example. Vehicle trips on the stretch in front of The Oaks Mall have actually dropped in recent years, which one planner attributes to congestion forcing drivers to pick alternate routes or take mass transit.
"Think of water going though a pipe - it goes through the path of least resistance," said Mike Escalante, senior planner with the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization.
Local planners have embraced the less-is-more concept, abandoning road-building projects in favor of other methods to reduce congestion. Dom Nozzi, senior planner for the city of Gainesville and author of a book on sprawl, said smaller roads actually reduce gridlock by encouraging bike and bus riding.
"We simply cannot build (or) widen our way out of congestion," he said.
Nozzi made his comments at a recent conference in Palatka on growth, saying they represent his personal views and not those of the city. But the concept is apparent in several local traffic projects, reflecting widespread political support for the idea as well as limited money available for road building.
The planning organization's top priority is coordinating traffic signals to ease congestion on existing roads, rather than build new ones. Alachua County commissioners last week approved adding nine roundabouts to Tower Road, in an effort to disperse drivers to connecting arteries. A planned project in Gainesville would cut two driving lanes off a segment of Main Street, turning them into a bike path and parking.
The latter project is an issue differentiating the two candidates for an at-large seat on the Gainesville City Commission. Former city commissioner and entrepreneur Tony Domenech opposes the plan, while University of Florida administrator Jeanna Mastrodicassa supports it.
"They're trying to make congestion so bad that you'll get out of your car," Domenech said.
He said the Main Street project and a similar proposal to remove lanes from University Avenue will push traffic into artery streets and create less pleasant neighborhoods.
But Mastrodicassa said neighborhoods benefit when measures are taken to reduce the number of cars on the road.
"I think what we need to be working toward is getting more people off the roads," she said.
The candidates agree congestion is a problem. Gainesville commuters travel an average of 18 minutes each way to work, according to the 2000 Census. While that may seem like an insignificant amount of time compared to the clogged commutes of South Florida, the time is three minutes longer than a decade before and likely grew longer since 2000.
The Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization categorizes six different streets as so congested they're considered failed roadways, including sections of Archer Road, University Avenue and 13th and 34th streets. An unscientific survey by the Sun found getting through those sections can take from five minutes to 10 minutes during peak travel times.
But the section of Newberry in front of The Oaks Mall didn't make the list, despite an eight-minute driving time in the survey and reputation among locals as notoriously crowded. Escalante said the section was rated as having average congestion, in part because traffic trips there have dropped in recent years.
The reason is likely because gridlock has led people to use alternate routes or mass transit, he said.
The planning organization has pushed for state money to buy buses and expand service, rather than fund new road-building projects. Part of the reason is strictly practical, said Marlie Sanderson, director of transportation planning for the organization.
"There's just not a lot of transportation dollars out there for any new road construction or widening," he said.
The group's top-priority project to synchronize every traffic signal in Alachua County provides more bang for the buck, he said. While that project is expected to cost a total of $16 million, building roads or adding lanes costs $2.5 million to $6 million per mile.
Most current transportation projects involve maintaining existing infrastructure. SW 13th Street and Williston Road are being resurfaced at a total cost of $6.7 million. Construction is imminent on another four resurfacing projects.
Alachua County hasn't built a new road since Fort Clarke Boulevard in the late 1980s, said Public Works Director Rick Hedrick. The last road expansion was widening Tower Road at SW 8th Avenue to four lanes from two in 1997-98, he said.
But residents in 1999 recommended against making the entire stretch four lanes to preserve the feel of the neighborhood. Planners have come to realize that adding lanes actually creates gridlock, Hedrick said.
"Ultimately, they're backed up like the road they were built to relieve," he said. "The idea is there's got to be a better way to do it."
Roundabouts are meant to reduce speeds and accidents while diverting traffic to alternate routes. At nine intersections on Tower Road, drivers will be forced to turn right or loop through a roundabout to proceed.
Some area residents have raised questions about the project. Glenn Glazer, sales manager at a Gainesville automobile dealership, said the plan is idealistic and will only worsen congestion.
"The people aren't going to stop driving," he said. "They're just going to be stuck in traffic longer."
But Hedrick said the features should disperse traffic to connecting routes, though that may actually force other roads to be expanded. The SW 24th Avenue bridge across Interstate 75 might be widened and SW 8th Avenue extended to SW 62nd Boulevard, he said.
The plan for Main Street involves other concepts to discourage traffic. The project, scheduled for 2008-09, would change the outside two lanes on the five-lane roadway into permanent parking and a bike lane between Depot Avenue and NW 8th Avenue.
Nozzi said such roads can improve quality of life. Expanding roads only encourages cars to speed through as quickly as possible, he said.
"We're designing for cars to be happy, not people to be happy," he said.
Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 338-3176 or crabben@gvillesun.com.
City planners say building or widening roads actually increases congestion.

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