Plan to reconfigure NW 8th Ave. goes to city Thursday

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 at 5:00 p.m.

The hot-button issue of taking a travel lane off a stretch of Northwest Eighth Avenue goes back to the City Commission Thursday.

City staff is scheduled to present numbers for vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic from counts in September and October along the nearly one-mile stretch from just west of Northwest 23rd Street to Northwest 34th Street.

In early May, the majority of the City Commission voted to reduce vehicle travel lanes along most of that stretch from two lanes to one lane in each direction and add bicycle lanes. Wider sidewalks, a landscaped median and an electric conduit for the future installation of LED street lighting were also part of the not-yet-finalized plans for a future road resurfacing that commissioners advanced that night.

The reduction in vehicle travel lanes started as a temporary trial to gather the traffic numbers that Public Works staff will present Thursday. The City Commission meeting begins at 1 p.m.

The full road project will cover about 3.3 miles from Northwest Sixth Street to Northwest 40th Drive. Cost projections are in the range of $3.5 million. Construction is not expected to start until early 2015 to avoid overlapping with the county's project on the main east-west corridor just to the north, Northwest 16th/23rd Avenue.

During this trial period, 24-hour vehicle counts were conducted on Sept. 24, Oct. 10, Oct. 16 and Oct. 23. Twelve-hour bicycle and pedestrian counts took place on Sept. 17 and Sept. 19. Compared with a 2011 count, the average daily vehicle trips declined from 15,180 to 14,551. Vehicle speed and the speed limit have both declined as well. Eighty-five percent of the vehicles were traveling at or below 49.5 mph, compared with 55.7 mph in 2011. The speed limit on that stretch is currently 35 mph, compared with 45 mph in 2011.

Based on the time of day, wait time at the intersection of Northwest 34th Street either increased moderately or declined a little during the temporary lane reduction, staff concluded. The roadway level of service, a measure of traffic volume and congestion, was not affected, according to staff's analysis.

Bicycle counts during the 12-hour period from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. increased from 108 in 2011 to 149 in 2013. A city presentation does not specify how many of those bicyclists were on the sidewalk and how many used the bike lanes. There were 106 pedestrians counted during the 12-hour period. No pedestrian counts were conducted in 2011.

There were two traffic crashes reported during the August to October period when numbers were collected. One was an angle crash at 34th Street. The other was a sideswipe along the 3300 block, the area where eastbound traffic now merges from two lanes to one.

By comparison, there were also two crashes reported from August to October 2012. One of those was an angle crash at Northwest 23rd Street, in the area where eastbound traffic used to merge from two lanes to one lane.

That merge point farther east raised safety concerns about drivers in the right lane speeding to get ahead of vehicles in the left lane.

The current configuration, with a left lane merging into the right lane east of Northwest 34th, has some people worried about drivers braking and bunching up or speeding to get ahead of other cars.

Emails sent to commissioners this week expressed differing views on the new pattern for merging.

"About twice a day, I turn west from NW 23rd Street onto NW 8th Avenue going to work, and this daring deed has become dramatically simpler now that two lanes of traffic aren't racing eastward to merge into one near where I'm trying to turn," an email of support sent Tuesday read. "This improvement was totally unexpected."

"What the change has done to the car traffic eastbound is cause the orderly, law-abiding citizens who queue up in the right lane to continue down 8th to sit through several light cycles, wasting large amounts of time while opportunists use the left lane and dangerously accelerate and jerk ahead of those who have waited their turn," an email of opposition sent Wednesday read. "This has at best produced really rude driving behavior where before all 4 lanes moved rather well and at worst a really excellent bottleneck for accidents."

The staff report noted that public feedback received via phone, email and letter during the trial period showed 191 comments in support of the four-lane configuration, 22 favoring two lanes and 11 expressing no preference.

Since the agenda for Thursday's meeting was released last week, a deluge of emails favoring the lane reduction and the addition of bicycle lanes has been sent to the City Commission.

A MoveOn.Org petition in favor of the lane reduction and addition of bicycle lanes has also started.

On Wednesday afternoon at Littlewood Elementary School, Gainesville resident Jessica Antiga said the new pattern for merging traffic has drivers confused and jamming on the brakes.

"I purposely avoid routing my drive that way," she said.

At the playground in Westside Park, resident Michelle Weaver said she's had a tough time growing accustomed to the new merging point.

"I've driven that road for 10 years, and that was a really weird change," she said.

Assistant Public Works Director Phil Mann said if commissioners vote to keep the lane reduction, the extended eastbound left-hand turn lane now leading onto Northwest 31st Drive and the current pattern for merging out of it and into the right lane may see changes in the final design.

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