Two years later, Main Street debate persists


Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 6:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 6:54 p.m.

It's shortly after 5 on a weekday afternoon in downtown Gainesville, and traffic on Main Street is stacked up to the north and to the south of University Avenue. Northbound traffic stretches down to South Fourth Avenue. The tail end of the line of southbound traffic is back at North Third Avenue.

Then the traffic lights turn green one after the other, and southbound traffic begins to move slowly and haltingly. Depending on their starting point, some drivers at University make it through a series of lights and down past South Fourth Avenue. Others end up hitting a red light at South First or Second Avenue.

Nearly two years have passed since construction concluded on the $6.4 million resurfacing of Main from Depot Avenue to North Eighth Avenue, yet debate and disagreement continue over a design that reduced the road from two travel lanes in each direction to one and added a center turn lane, bike lanes, on-street parking and wider sidewalks.

The city's Public Works Department has now weighed in with a report comparing traffic patterns before the project — including some data that is more than a decade old — with the current conditions.

The report said travel times these days take longer but not, on average, significantly so. The report also shows lower speeds by motorists, fewer cars, more bicycles and pedestrians and a significant drop in the number of crashes.

The report's conclusions are, for the most part, positive.

"The lane changes and addition of bicycle and parking lanes significantly improved safety conditions, calmed traffic and increased multimodal usability," Debbie Leistner, the planning manager for Public Works, wrote in the report. "Overall, the project had positive impacts on the livability of the surrounding area with some improvements noted in redevelopment activity adjacent to the corridor."

Leistner did note the "negative impacts" on travel time, particularly for northbound traffic during an 11:30 a.m. test drive along the corridor. A drive from Depot to Eighth avenues that took a little more than three minutes back in 2001 — the year the comparison numbers for travel time date back to — now takes almost five minutes.

For drivers who use the corridor regularly, opinions of the road narrowing still differ widely.

"I think it was the most ridiculous move," said Pam Tyler, a courier for a downtown law office. "The traffic flow is not eased. From 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and starting at 3:30 (in the afternoon), it is a straight line of cars from University Avenue down to Southwest Fourth and from University north."

Jamie Arnold used to deliver pizzas and said the stretch of Main downtown was a "nightmare" with the old design because drivers would back up traffic while waiting to make left turns. Arnold, who now works at a downtown florist shop, said the center turn lanes have alleviated that problem and helped the flow of traffic.

The Public Works Department launched its study of the road's traffic patterns after City Commissioner Randy Wells listened to concerns several months back at a meeting of the Gainesville Alachua County Association of Realtors.

The information on travel times along the stretch from Depot to Eighth was collected in April as staff made five trips up and down the road at four specific times — 7:45 a.m, 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4:45 p.m.

They said that, combining all of those trips together, the average travel time increased by 29 seconds over comparison data that date back to 2001.

The most significant increases in drive time were for northbound traffic at 11:30 a.m. — 105 seconds — and 1 p.m. — 75 seconds. At some times of the day, travel times were reduced, city staff said. That was the case for northbound traffic for the 4:45 p.m. test period, which is before the busiest point of the afternoon rush hour.

Vehicle speeds were down by approximately 2 mph — from a little less than 18 mph in 2001 to a little less than 16 mph in April.

A comparison of road usage from before construction started in 2009 to 2012, traffic counts showed that traffic volume was down by 21 percent for the full stretch of the project.

The drop-off was more significant on North Main, where 17,800 average vehicle trips per day in 2009 fell to 13,100 trips per day in 2012.

While traffic counts were down on most roads in Gainesville, a stretch of another nearby north-south route, Southwest Sixth Street south of University Avenue, saw a significant increase. From 2008 to 2011, average daily vehicle trips on Southwest Sixth Street went from 6,084 to 8,495. It's unclear how much the narrowing of Main Street contributed to that because traffic dropped substantially on the segment of Northwest Sixth Street north of University Avenue.

The level of service on Main Street was not affected but it already carried an adopted level of "D," which means slow traffic flow is the expectation.

The most significant change came in the number of crashes, which dropped from 59 in the 18-month stretch from January 2008 to June 2009 to 18 from January 2012 to June 2013. Rear-end and angle collisions dropped off steeply after construction.

Staff also observed a significant increase in bicycle and pedestrian traffic. The exception was a drop in pedestrian traffic during the morning rush hour.

Staff also attempted to make a case that the project spurred development. They noted that an average of 11 permits per year were issued for new businesses along Main from 2004 to 2010, and six were already issued through the first two months of this year.

Just as the motorists who drive on Main Street disagree on the redesign, some city commissioners differ on the conclusions of the staff's report.

"I would not interpret that report as an endorsement of lane reductions," Mayor Ed Braddy said.

Braddy said that, while bicycle and pedestrian numbers were up, they were still only around 2 percent of the vehicle count numbers. He also said he believes the reduced traffic counts meant fewer people are coming downtown.

Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said the report shows the project was a success.

"There's a radical decrease in accidents," he said. "We improved the safety of that road."

Hawkins said that, in his mind, the project accomplished its intent — to construct a street that accommodates cars, bikes, pedestrians, buses and parking.

"You think about all those things when you design a street," Hawkins said.

Standing in his shop late Thursday morning, Bunky Mastin, the co-owner of The Wine & Cheese Gallery on North Main, said the project slowed traffic — and he thinks that is good for businesses along the road and good for pedestrians trying to cross it.

"I don't want this to be a through street," he said. "If you want to cross Gainesville north to south at rush hour, you should pick Sixth Street. I want this to be someplace you come to."

The state reduced travel lanes at the request of the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization, which is made up of city and county commissioners. The Florida Department of Transportation then said the road no longer met the criteria to be a state road and that local government had to assume ownership and maintenance responsibilities.

As it stands, the city has plans to build a roundabout at South Main and Depot Avenue and to potentially reduce Main Street south of that to one travel lane in each direction.

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