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Students Lead Push for Traffic Light at USF Sarasota-Manatee

To take some liberties with an old adage, this is a case where both the squeaky AND the speedy wheels get the grease.

Students, staff and the community have been raising their voices about a dangerous stretch of U.S. 41 in front of the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus after a series of deadly accidents -- and it looks like their complaints are finally being heard.

Since 2005, when ground was broken on USF Sarasota-Manatee's new campus, there have been seven traffic accidents and hundreds of near-misses around the school's three entrances on U.S. Highway 41.

Three people have been killed, including Dan Giguere, a 35-year-old father of three young sons who died this past February in a head-on collision.

USFSM student body president Andrew Gould says, while there are traffic lights about a third of a mile both north and south of the school's three entrances on the road, also known as the Tamiami Trail, there's no control directly in front of the university.

"There's traffic lights beyond those lights, all the way up and down the road, and this section here is the only long section without any lights," said Gould. "So people really open up and put their foot down on the pedal here and really increase their speed."

Traffic consistently travels 10 to 20 miles an hour over the posted speed limit of 50 MPH. In addition, the road curves so that you can barely see what's coming towards you, plus the school almost sneaks up on you if you're unfamiliar with the area.

"There's only this one middle turning lane and there's quite a few businesses next to the school and across the street from the school," said Gould, who says he's been involved in a number of near-misses at the entrances.

"So getting into that middle turn lane to come onto campus oftentimes, you'll have to dodge back out into traffic to avoid someone who's coming at you or who wants to turn ahead of you, and then go right back into that turn lane to try to get to school."

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
Northbound bus stop on U.S. Highway 41 across the street from USF Sarasota-Manatee. To reach campus, bus riders have to cross all seven lanes of traffic with no crosswalks or signals to slow drivers down.

The road is so dangerous, Gould adds, that public transportation buses approaching from the south won't even make the left turn onto campus, forcing pedestrians into what one calls a real-life version of the old video game "Frogger."

"The bus drop-off is across the street," Gould said, pointing across to an area in front of the fence that borders the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. "And they (bus riders) have to walk all the way across three lanes of traffic each way, including the middle turn lane."

There are no crosswalks either, making the trip even more dangerous. Gould says at least one student has had to navigate their wheelchair across the road.

Concern is growing, as USF Sarasota-Manatee will enroll freshmen and sophomore level students for the first time in the Fall Semester this year.

It's not that the school has pushed local and state government for years for some sort of change to the situation -- they have, speaking to everyone from the county government all the way up to Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and U.S. Representative Vern Buchanan.

"Everyone agrees that there should be something done about it," Gould says, "but we've got resistance constantly from Florida Department of Transportation, saying that there just isn't enough traffic to justify the installation of the light, that's been the main opposition."

"The overall issue is providing safety for those who go in and out of our campus on a daily basis," says Casey Welch.

So, acting on student requests, the student government started an online petition asking Governor Rick Scott to approve the installation of a traffic light at the main entrance. In just two weeks, over a thousand people signed it.

That petition was brought to Tallahassee during the current legislative session, where it drew a response.

Casey Welch, the university's director of government and community relations, says that this week, lawmakers agreed to start working with the Florida Department of Transportation to find funding for traffic controls.

And Welch adds school officials will soon sit down with FDOT and county officials to determine what traffic controls -- a light, median, crosswalks or some combination of the three -- will be put in and where they'll be located.

"Is it using the two outer entrances, is it focusing on the main entrance?" Welch said. "That's where we are in this next step of the process, but the overall issue is providing safety for those who go in and out of our campus on a daily basis."

Gould calls the decision a win for the students, the community, and the process.

"We brought this up into the halls of the Legislature and they have responded by recognizing that there is a safety issue here on our campus and on the road in front of it," Gould said. "They want to work with us, and work together, in order to remedy that situation."

The first formal meeting between school and transportation officials is expected to occur within the next few weeks.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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