Brent Batten: U.S. 41 changes taking an eternity

BRENT BATTEN

I’m going to go out on a limb and say since you are reading this, the rapture did not occur.

If the end had come, it would have halted once and for all the effort to reroute U.S. 41 around downtown Naples.

From the looks of it, the second coming might be the only thing that will.

Naples City Council on Wednesday agreed to pursue an alternate route for U.S. 41, one that would move some traffic to Goodlette-Frank Road and allow for fewer lanes and reduced traffic at the Four Corners, on-street parking and a more pedestrian-friendly atmosphere downtown.

While the council agreed to pursue changes, matters like convincing the Florida Department of Transportation, U.S. 41 business owners and Goodlette Road stakeholders that the plan is a good idea remain.

Those substantial hurdles suggest the issue will survive not just this prediction of end times but probably the next two or three as well.

It’s not that there is no case for the rerouting. There is a strong one.

Fewer lanes and less traffic at Four Corners would allow easier pedestrian access between Fifth Avenue South and points east such as Bayfront and Tin City. Sidewalks connecting them could be wider and better isolated from the sights and sounds of a busy road. When vacant properties northeast of Four Corners, the old Grand Central Station site is the prime example, are redeveloped, the pedestrian factor increases geometrically, since those properties are the ones now faced with the most intimidating walk to the relative tranquility of Fifth Avenue South.

Connectivity doesn’t apply just to pedestrians. Vehicles and bicycles would have an easier time navigating Four Corners and could use the spot as a start point to get to Crayton Cove and Third Street South but for the barrier presented by U.S. 41 and its constraining effect on travel to the west and south.

But calling the road that takes a sharp turn at the Four Corners something else and subtracting lanes there represents a major change for downtown. And change is never easy. As evidence, look to the history that shows City Council in 1977 asking the state to redirect the U.S. 41 designation away from downtown.

In 1992, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2004 subsequent efforts to redirect U.S. 41 and make downtown more pedestrian friendly have been initiated by City Council and essentially gone nowhere.

The result today is a stretch of road where, as described by the city’s consultant on the current project Jon Sewell, cars are clocked travelling as fast as 80 mph and at one point, pedestrian crossing is banned. “It’s so unsafe you can’t even cross the road there,” Sewell told council.

Assistant City Manager Roger Reinke, who says he’s more optimistic than most about the chances of succeeding now after 30 years of frustration, says FDOT has at least been receptive to hearing the city’s case this time. No meeting dates have been set but Reinke hopes to have that discussion with DOT and be able to update City Council in September.

Even so, an optimistic timeline for meaningful changes to the way what is now U.S. 41 functions downtown is three to five years away, Reinke estimates. And that doesn’t deliver the beautiful tree-lined boulevards and decorative paving depicted in the consultant’s renderings.

The short-term changes _ if three to five years can be described as short term _ Reinke is talking about entail redirecting traffic to Goodlette and reducing the lanes available for travel at Four Corners. “If discussions go well with DOT, we could make some initial changes, no grand boulevards, no gateways, in a few years,” he said.

Those grand boulevards and gateways, as shown in renderings, would likely cost millions of dollars, yet cost was barely mentioned at Wednesday’s council meeting.

The renderings are only ideas and no designs have been approved, so there is no cost estimate to discuss, Reinke said.

The consultant’s report maintains there is adequate road capacity on existing roads to handle the change. Motorists are already using Goodlette Road more than they used to. Redesignating U.S. 41 to there would add only about 1,300 cars a day, Sewell said. Major road improvements shouldn’t be needed, according to those figures.

Council member Doug Finlay isn’t convinced. He believes the traffic modeling used by Sewell’s firm, Kimley-Horn, is faulty. He suggested a “road diet” in which some lanes of U.S. 41 near downtown would be blocked for a few months as a test to see where traffic would flow. The town of Skokie, Ill. is currently employing such a test in its downtown district. “Having no faith in the model (many models are inaccurate), a test like Skokie is the only way I will support moving forward,” Finlay said.

Add to the list of skeptics U.S. 41 business owners who believe a reduction in vehicle traffic will mean a reduction in customer traffic and attorney John Cardillo, whose work on behalf of the Neighborhood Health Clinic clinic and Fun Time Nursery, both near Goodlette Road, prompted him to speak out against increased traffic on that route.

It may not take until the end of time to improve downtown via rerouting U.S. 41. But it certainly seems like it.

Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

© 2011 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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