TAMPA The bumps and jolts so familiar to motorists riding along Nebraska Avenue vanished under newly paved asphalt that filled in the cracks and potholes.
The smoother drive cost taxpayers about $11 million and included a state highway redesign that shrank Nebraska from four lanes to two, with a left-turn lane in the middle. The approximately 3-mile stretch from Kennedy Boulevard to just south of Hillsborough Avenue added bus bays, crosswalks, traffic signals and bicycle lanes.
Work was completed in 2009. It was met generally with good reviews from area neighbors, motorists and bicyclists.
"I ride the bike lanes down Nebraska Avenue routinely for business and downtown," said Alan Snel, director of South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers, a coalition of Tampa Bay bicycle stores that advocates for road safety. "It's improved the safety of my bicycle rides enormously. I use it as my main artery from Seminole Heights to downtown."
Now the Florida Department of Transportation says a recent study provides proof that the redesigned Nebraska is a significantly safer roadway to travel for everyone.
The crash rate declined from more than seven crashes to fewer than three crashes per million vehicle miles. The state has a record of four crashes per million vehicle miles for similarly designed roadways.
Prior to the redesign, Nebraska's crash rate was 50 percent higher than the state average for an urban four-lane, undivided roadway.
The before-and-after data looked at crash statistics from 2004 through 2006 and 2009 through mid-March 2010, respectively. Among the highlights was a 74 percent decrease in total crashes from 523 to 55.
Collisions resulting in fatalities or severe injuries decreased by 61 percent from 38 to six.
Crashes involving pedestrians decreased from seven per year to two and a half per year; bicycle-related crashes went from five per year to fewer than two per year.
"It's a good example and a great model that should be replicated around the Tampa Bay area," Snel said.
Among additional findings were significant decreases in sideswipe, rear end and left-turn collisions, largely due to the center turn lane, said Peter Hsu, FDOT safety engineer for District 7.
The study has garnered national attention from a June Webinar sponsored by the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals.
St. Petersburg transportation officials say the study supports efforts already taken such as striping off about 100 miles of bicycle lanes on city streets. In the future, portions of 18th Avenue South could be redesigned as Nebraska was, said Joe Kubicki, the city's parking and transportation director.
"Studies like this (of Nebraska) have been done all over the country," he said. "When it is done in your neck of the woods then it's especially helpful."
Tampa is notorious nationally for its poor safety record for pedestrians and bicyclists. Recent efforts have focused on developing a master plan to address this issue.
The city was ranked second most dangerous community for pedestrians among the 54 largest metropolitan areas in a report recently issued by Transportation for America. At least 12 bicycle fatalities have been recorded within the past year.
When road work discussions began several years ago, state highway officials thought to repave and restripe Nebraska for about $9 million to $10 million. But a grassroots movement for a more creative approach began with Metropolitan Planning Commission employees, then-City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, then-Mayor Pam Iorio and neighborhood activists.
FDOT officials got on board.
"I used to zig-zag through Tampa Heights and it wasn't really direct how I went, but riding on Nebraska wasn't comfortable," said Gena Torres, a planner with Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Commission for crash mitigation, congestion management and air quality. She formerly served on MPO's bicycle advisory committee and was an early advocate for a better Nebraska design.
"You really can't do this on every road," Torres said. But Nebraska seemed a good fit based on traffic volume and its high crash rates. In low-income neighborhoods along the route many residents relied on walking and biking.
And Torres said many residents saw the Nebraska project as an opportunity to revitalize their neighborhoods.
The end result isn't perfect. Torres said people wanted more landscaping and had hoped to extend the makeover north of Hillsborough Avenue. But traffic moves, buses can pull out of traffic, bicycle lanes add safety for riders and also give pedestrians a wider buffer between the sidewalk and motorists.
"It's done a lot more for the community than really just traffic," said Torres, who now enjoys pedaling along Nebraska. "Now I'm waving 'good morning' to people. Cars respect the white line."