by Mitch Perry
Nearly a year and a half after a retired diplomat was killed pulling out of Eckerd College onto 54th Avenue South in St. Petersburg, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) last month finally installed a traffic light at the area, much to the university community's delight.
"We're extremely pleased that that the DOT has done this. We love it," enthuses Bill McKenna, Eckerd's director of planning, development and construction, adding that it's as much the reconfigured exit lanes leaving the campus on to 54th Avenue South (also known as the Pinellas Bayway) as it is the actual light that has made entering and exiting the campus much safer.
Even though local officials in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had advocated for the new light for years, it was never their call; 54th Avenue South is a state road.The department removed the traffic light from the entrance to the campus back in 1992, saying traffic volume was too low to justify it.
"Whenever we put a signal in we have to look at several different things, like crash data, traffic counts, delays and traffic volumes," says FDOT spokesperson Kris Carson.
But there continued to be accidents over the years, due in part to a configuration that didn't allow for any slowing of traffic going west to east on the street, making it dangerous for students, administrators and anyone else leaving the campus going west. During that period there were many people associated with the college who were unsuccessful in their lobbying efforts — including Bob Shepherd, the 85-year-old former diplomat and member of of the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College (ASPEC), who was tragically killed on November 7, 2012.
Shepherd had been returning from an ASPEC dinner with school president Donald Eastman, driving his neighbors and fellow ASPEC members, Aldo and Frances “Blackie” Sparzani, back to their shared building.
Frances Sparzani went into a coma, and eventually passed away months later.
In 2009, with support from St. Pete officials, the college requested a stoplight, but again were blunted in their efforts by FDOT. But after Shepherd's death, FDOT finally sprang into action, and began studying various options before agreeing that "signalization" was required.
Eckerd's Bill McKenna says there used to be a frequent amount of tail-end crashes going east out of the college, because of the 45-degree turn lane allowing motorists to pull onto 54th Ave. S. and then see an oncoming car and stop. "Meanwhile the cars behind them would already stop. They had already started, and then smashed up in the back. So we had a number of those over the years, and we wanted to eliminate that."
That danger has been mitigated, because the DOT has now drawn up two 90-degree angle lanes leaving the school, with the left-hand lane going straight across for those who want to continue westbound towards the beach. The right-hand lane allows a motorist to conspicuously turn right.
The red-light camera installed in front of the campus works on its own cycle with a video camera detection system, which monitors the exit lanes to see if there's any motion by autos approaching the exit.
FDOT, along with state lawmakers such as Kathleen Peters and Jeff Brandes, were in Tallahassee to make the joint announcement in February 2013 that the school would be getting the new light.
"In the end, unfortunately, it took the deaths of two people to cause FDOT to reexamine what was going on there," Eckerd's Bill McKenna says.
"We're extremely pleased that DOT has done it, we're thankful for it, and to date I have not received any complaints about this," he adds.