Finally, a plan to fix Whiddon Ave

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By Jenna McKenna

There'll be no more speeding through the school zone on Whiddon Avenue, if the Cedar Key City Commission has anything to do with it. Tuesday, the commission heard a presentation by Rick Hall of HPE Engineering with a proposal for traffic calming solutions for the Whiddon corridor. The project has been a long time coming, because in addition to being the street on which Cedar Key School is located, Whiddon is also, as Mayor Heath Davis called it, “the bottleneck between Way Key and the back islands, Hudson Hill, the airport, and most of the residential part of Cedar Key.”

Whiddon also leads to the cemetery and Cemetery Point Park and the Anchor Hole boat ramp, important social, tourism and commercial destinations that make Whiddon the second most heavily traveled road on the island, following only State Road 24.

“About 2,000 car trips per day,” said Community Redevelopment Agency head Greg Lang, referring to a survey he performed in his former role as Local Planning Agency director.

Davis introduced Hall's presentation with some remarks on the perils surrounding large public projects.

“It's easy to forget how we got where we are,” he began. “Jeb Bush will always be blamed for the FCAT, although Lawton Chiles first started planning it. Clinton was blamed for NAFTA, even though Bush's daddy was mostly responsible.”

With these historic examples, Davis briefly sketched the story of how Whiddon Avenue came to be, simultaneously, the second most-traveled and most theoretically perilous artery in all Cedar Key.

Seven years ago, city building official Robert Nifenegger noticed construction on one of the school buildings would put the structure into Whiddon Avenue. He tried to stop the project and couldn't; neither could Levy County, because the school board actually owned the land over which Whiddon ran. One effect of the encroachment was to shift the road a few feet and to narrow, at the steepest curve, an already tightly winding corridor. Now, many years later, the current city administration is stuck trying to fix an increasingly dangerous situation – a combination of heavy traffic and schoolchildren.

Hall's presentation displayed two nominally different solutions which departed at their treatment of the intersection of Whiddon Avenue and H Street. His preferred solution would put a traffic roundabout at the site; a secondary offering would reconfigure the current T-intersection from one where only H Street traffic stops to one where all routes stop.

Hall said he preferred the roundabout, which will allow traffic from both ways on Whiddon, as well as traffic entering and leaving Whiddon from H Street, to proceed after yielding to vehicles in the roundabout, if any.

“This is a solution that slows you down and speeds you up,” he said, explaining that while it is impossible to enter a roundabout at high speed, this solution is less frustrating than forcing all drivers to stop, even when there is no traffic.

Otherwise, the two configurations shared the following additional characteristics: curb radii with smaller returns (ie: sharper corners on sidewalks) and a tighter curve on the eastern approach to the school, more palm trees near the street at regular intervals, head-in parking on both sides of Whiddon between the school and the water tower and a more visible “continental” striped pedestrian crossing in front of the school.

The first three characteristics, Hall said, shared the effect of forcing drivers to go slower – the tight curves and sharply angled curbs make the road narrower and more difficult to enter at high speed, and the trees close to the road make the road seem narrower and have the psychological effect of making drivers slow down. On-street parking also makes drivers slow down, he said, while the striped crossing is simply more visible than one that is merely outlined.

Hall said the school's current drop-off and pickup configuration for children, with parent vehicles entering and exiting through the playing field north of the school, is safe and expedient. Commissioner Scott Dennison asked Hall if he hadn't seen schoolchildren being dropped off in front of the school and expressed disappointment in the plan not showing a pull-out lane in front of the school for this purpose.

Citizen Terry Tataru spoke as a resident of 7th Street and noted his concern about increased traffic being routed down 7th and 8th streets as a result of the school time bottleneck. Commissioner Sue Colson, who lives on 8th Street, noted that was already the case and added it was only a matter of 20 minutes, twice a day.

Mayor Davis asked Hall if both the roundabout and T configurations could handle oversize vehicles such as pickup trucks and clam boats on trailers, and Dennison chimed in asking about oversize tractor trailers with building equipment. Hall said his firm had a computer program called Auto Turn that, when the dimensions of any vehicle are input, can move that vehicle through any planned environment and see how the vehicle will fare. Hall said he had already input the dimensions of tractor trailers and trucks with clam boats, and said they could move easily through the roundabout, at the correct speed.

Speed is the key, Hall pointed out.

“What we have right now is an environment that's real friendly for the drivers, and not so friendly to pedestrians,” he said.

The objective is to make the street environment help drivers conform to the 20 mile-per-hour speed limit, through the use of tight curves and visual stimuli.

“We're not going to have parity (between driver and pedestrian comfort), but we definitely want to lower driver comfort so they're not rolling through here at 40 miles per hour, talking on the phone,” said Hall.

The commission took no action that night, but has asked for a month to review the plan and present it to other affected parties, including Levy County School Board, Cedar Key School administrators and PTO, and Cedar Key Water and Sewer District. The project will require the approval and cooperation of the city and all the administrative districts.