BONITA SPRINGS — Cyclists and pedestrians this summer should be able to cruise Hickory Boulevard with more ease and less fear of cars.
Lee County Commissioners at Tuesday’s board meeting agreed 5-0 to pave new four-foot shoulders on both sides of the road that leads from Bonita Springs to Fort Myers Beach.
The project has met with support and opposition with both sides citing safety as their reason, but advocates are convinced the new design will lead to a safer experience for everyone.
“Adding shoulders is really a positive thing,” said Paul Wingard, the transportation department’s interim director.
The $500,000 project from Bonita Beach Road to Broadway Channel Bridge is set to begin this Spring, after the tourist season, and take about a month to complete.
The shoulders were added as part of a repaving project.
Wingard tried to quell fears of residents, such as Jack Meeker of Estero whose residential community, The Brooks, owns a private beach club on Hickory Boulevard.
Some have said that cars will use the extra pavement to maneuver around slow traffic or cars that have stopped to turn across oncoming traffic.
“I think widening this road is going to lead to more accidents and greater speed,” said Meeker, who visits the beach several times a week.
But Wingard contended that the opposite has been found in studies nationally with the number of accidents decreasing when shoulders are added.
Cars have more room to recover if something goes wrong, Wingard said, and pedestrians have a smooth, safe place to walk instead of the current gravel and grass property lines that run just inches from cars and trucks driving 35 mph.
The speed will not change nor will the lane widths except where they are made uniform.
For some, the shoulders are an obvious safety improvement.
A woman staying in Dennis Calabresa’s home several years ago was killed walking back from a restaurant and he told Bonita Springs City Council in August that things could have been different.
“She’d have had a better chance if she did have a space she could walk on,” Calabresa said.
Right now, pedestrian traffic has one sidewalk several feet off the east side of Hickory Boulevard and mainly gravel and grass on either side of the road.
Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson said the initial concern of some, not all, residents had been eased when county staff outlined the project’s plans at a City Council meeting in January.
“I think that allowed the residents to understand what it really entailed,” Nelson said. “This was something that wasn’t going to ruin the community. It wasn’t going to cause the problem they thought it was.”
He said there may still be some concerns, such as handling decorative brick driveways that may be in the path of the new shoulders, that will have to be addressed as the project moves forward.
For Dan Moser, a cycling advocate and member of the Florida Bicycle Association, the current sidewalk path is not suitable for all types of cycling enthusiasts and he’s glad to see the new plans move ahead. While the shoulders won’t be dedicated bike paths, they are a good start.
“Just getting that extra asphalt on there and giving the bicyclists a place to go will serve everybody, not just the cyclists but the motorists who won’t have to figure out how to deal with them,” Moser said. “A lot of people are not good at that.”
Commissioner Ray Judah, is not just concerned about the safety of motorists, but also cyclists, pedestrians and the residents who have to stand within inches of 35 mph traffic to get their mail.
“Instead of getting whacked, they at least have some margin of buffer,” Judah said of the benefits the shoulders may bring.
Darla Letourneau, a policy adviser for Bike Walk Lee, a coalition of residents that promote alternate transportation in government planning, applauded the process by which the shoulders were being added — as part of a resurfacing project.
“This was the moment to consider making other (improvements),” Letourneau said. She also was encouraged that cyclists will have greater connectivity throughout Lee County. “This is a major gap between Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach and it needs to be connected.”