Road diet pain is worth the gain

Road diet pain is worth the gain
Riverplace Boulevard is getting skinner as workmen remove a lane as part of the Riverplace Boulevard Road Diet project.

After many years of hearing talk from the City of Jacksonville about its plans to make the busy road outside their high-rise condo and apartment buildings pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, Southbank residents are finally seeing the Riverplace Boulevard Road Diet project come to fruition.

“I have been eagerly awaiting this project since I first heard of Lori Boyer’s plan. I truly hope it lives up to its promise,” said Susan Strauss, a Peninsula resident. “One of the reasons we chose to move to The Peninsula was the prospect of living in a neighborhood, on the water, that offered walkable access to shops, restaurants, and entertainment. As has been noted in any number of news articles, Jacksonville often fails to deliver on the many projections and promises of improvements. I am hopeful that the Riverplace Road Diet will actually live up to what it is intended to provide. Fingers crossed on this one.”

This fall, construction started on the long-promised road improvements, which include reducing the travel lanes for motorists from five lanes to three for traffic calming, improved accommodations for public transit, protected bike lanes, on-street parking, expanded landscaping with street furniture for relaxing and socializing, and a large pedestrian zone with improved lighting for public safety. The final total cost of the project – including hard and soft costs – was $6.3 million, said Nicholas Mousa, of GAI Consultants.

The project is estimated to be completed in the summer of 2019, according to information from the City. Baker Construction Services LLC is the contractor and GAI Consultants continues to be the Engineer of Record, said Tia Ford, a spokesperson for the City.

“The timing of the completed project should coincide with Florida Department of Transportation’s completion of the Fuller Warren multiuse path and other Riverwalk improvements scheduled for completion in late ‘19,” said District 5 Councilwoman Lori Boyer on her website.

“The project is going to add a tremendous amount of value to the property there and make a much safer environment,” said Southbank resident Mike Balanky, president and CEO of Chase Properties, which developed San Marco Place on the Southbank “The purpose is traffic calming. You will see more people in the streets than before and it will perpetuate additional residential developments on the Southbank.”

The “road diet” project was first initiated several years ago as an outgrowth of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority’s public outreach meeting on its Southeast Bus Rapid Transit Route, according to Boyer, who represents the Southbank. In a January 22, 2018 newsletter to her constituents, Boyer outlined a brief history of the project.

JTA, which utilizes Riverplace Boulevard for its bus route, initially contemplated constructing a dedicated bus lane in each direction, however Southbank residents vigorously objected, she said. Instead they urged the City to create a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly corridor for residents and visitors to the Riverwalk.

The residents’ desire coincided with the City’s Mobility Plan, which had slated this segment of roadway as the “top priority gap connection” in its bicycle network, and the Downtown Investment Authority’s idea for retail enhancement and economic growth by providing on-street parking and a more walkable neighborhood, Boyer said, noting that funds were then set aside from the Southbank Tax Increment District to modify the existing roadway to create a more livable neighborhood.

The idea was first presented to the residents in a public meeting in September 2015, and after much planning on the infrastructure and design, was vetted through the Downtown Development Review Board (DDRB) and community meetings. On June 15, 2017, the DDRB unanimously approved the design, right down to the colors of the concrete sidewalk pavers, which will be sandstone and white.

Construction might have begun sooner but unfortunately the bidding process was delayed, because the underground utility lines were incorrectly located on Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) maps, said Boyer. Once the actual utility locations were determined and tree and other elements relocated, the project was put out to bid in the fall of 2017, she said.

“When the bids were opened in December (2017), all exceeded the available budget,” Boyer said on her website. “I believe this is in part due to escalating prices as the economy is picking up steam and there are more roads to build than available contractors. In any event, there were enough bidders to fairly evaluate the bids and cost.”

Eying the shortfall, DIA re-appropriated an additional $798,663 to cover it in 2018, making the total cost of the project $6.3 million, said Mousa.

If the construction project turns out as planned, Strauss said she doesn’t mind living around the construction for a few months. “Pain is fine if there is gain,” Strauss said. “It’s hard to imagine that it can be any worse than what was already there, with cars racing around bends and no relief – even in a marked crosswalk – for getting across the street.

“My ideal for this project will be to not only successfully calm the traffic, but also to make Riverplace Boulevard a visually inviting area, with plantings and pedestrian level lighting,” she continued. “Too much of where we live is a concrete vastness, unrelieved by any sidewalk greenery or median landscaping.”

Sandra Fradd, who also lives in The Peninsula, agreed that living with the road construction is hard, but said it will be worth it once the project is finished. “I think it’s great. I hear a lot of grumbling, especially about high-traffic periods, but I’m seeing progress in making the road better. We’re learning to have patience and take turns. No, it isn’t fun, but knowing we’ll have a safer, more enjoyable, road experience makes it worthwhile,” she said.

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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