LONGWOOD – In the section of Seminole County where the bridge for State Road 417 crosses over Lake Jesup, motorists can quickly zip across the bridge to get where they’re going.
But bicyclists riding along State Road 434 through Longwood and Winter Springs don’t have that option, and have to cycle all the way around the lake itself, since the bridge is only open to cars.
What if the state created a new bike path that replaces the existing breakdown lanes on the bridge, opening it up to cyclists? Would that create a new, faster opportunity for those who bike around the area?
Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, which operates as a separate business unit of the Florida Department of Transportation, has proposed doing just that, spending $1 million to create bike lanes on the SR 417 bridge over Lake Jesup, and on Wednesday it sought approval for the idea from Metroplan Orlando, the regional transportation planning agency.
What it got, though, was major concerns from the board that the plan was opening up the bicyclists to a very deadly situation.
“I’m not willing to spend a million dollars to build a deathtrap,” said Metroplan Board member and Seminole County Commissioner Bob Dallari.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who also serves on the Metroplan board of directors, agreed that it made no sense to put bicyclists next to vehicles on a busy roadway like SR 417.
“I understand the important of connectivity,” she said. “But I think we’d create hazardous situations where vehicles should not be comingling with bicyclists.”
Alice Gilmartin, the government affairs officer for Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, presented the plan to the board and said it was a new addition to the region’s TIP, or Transportation Improvement Program, which is designed to create highway, transit, aviation and bicycle and pedestrian safety projects over the next five years.
“I realize this is a bit of a late request,” she said. “This is a two-year pilot project. If it dsoesn’t work, it goes away.”
But Jacobs said it wasn’t logical to encourage bicyclists to ride on a busy roadway, particularly on a bridge, or to eliminate the breakdown lanes for the cars.
“The car always has to be able to get off the road,” she said. “You have to be able to get off the road if you blow a tire or if your car simply dies in traffic, which has happened to me.”
This plan could backfire badly, she said, if it isn’t studied more closely first.
“We’re sitting here as one of the highest pedestrian fatality areas in the nation,” Jacobs said. “It’s new. It’s innovative. And I’m not quite ready for it yet.”
Gilmartin said Turnpike Enterprise felt it could be done to maximize safety for the bicyclists.
“We understand your situation,” she said. “The (Florida) Turnpike has cameras every mile. We can scan every turnpike facility to see if there’s a disabled vehicle.”
The project was also endorsed by Dan Stephens, chairman of Metroplan’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, who said this proposal is not a new idea to Greater Orlando’s bicycling community.
“This is not intended to be a recreational trail,” he said. “I know there has been talk in the bicycle community about getting a facility like that out there on the bridge. Your perspective is completely different when you are a cyclists.”
It should be noted that they also help pay for local roads like SR 417, he added.
“Cyclists are also taxpayers,” Stephens said.
But other Metroplan board members said they were not ready to endorse the idea yet.
“If you have a high speed road, people will want to jump on it,” said Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd.
“I think one life lost would be too much,” Dallari added.
The board voted to table the proposal and take it up again at its monthly meeting in August.
In the meantime, Stephens said he would do some research to see if he could answer some of their questions and fears.
“We’re going to look into find answers,” he said, “because we do know there are concerns.”
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