MANATEE -- Alarmed at a high number of traffic accidents and deaths, officials have appropriated $6.1 million to add sidewalks and street lights along a busy segment of U.S. 41 in south Manatee County.
In addition, the Florida Department of Transportation is also proposing to replace outdated traffic signals and pedestrian crossing signals, and add ramps to accommodate the handicapped at several intersections, including Bayshore Gardens Parkway and 60th Avenue West.
As a corollary project, FDOT also plans 14 pedestrian "refuge" islands and improved safety markings from 69th Avenue West to Cortez Road, according to Debbie Tower, an agency public information officer.
"The fatality figures were absolutely staggering," said Manatee County Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, of the 1.25-mile stretch of U.S. 41 from 53rd Avenue West to 63rd Avenue West.
The numbers tell the story: From 2007-2011, officials tallied 800 crashes, 673 injuries, and 8 pedestrian fatalities, Tower said.
"Those statistics should be helpful," she added. "From taking a close look at what had been occurring, we focused funding and the project in this segment; it is in a large part federal 'safety' dollars, but does include some state funding as well."
Federal "safety dollars" are set aside to correct particularly grievous roadway conditions, said Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac, who serves on the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization board.
Right-of-way acquisition could begin next month, with construction tentatively slated to start in the fall of 2015, FDOT documents said.
Those who use what is colloquially known as "goat paths" along the clogged roadway were enthused to
hear of the project.
"At night, I wouldn't go out," said Willie James Gipp, 61, a retiree who uses a scooter because he is physically handicapped from effects of diabetes.
To go to the nearest grocery store, he needs to cross U.S. 41, but a large pole near his home at the Trade Winds Mobile Home Park, at 5917 14th St. W., blocks his way.
So, he has to venture into the oncoming northbound traffic lanes in order reach an intersection where he can cross.
"I've been here three years, and I've seen at least 12 accidents along the walkway -- pedestrians and cars," said Raleigh Sullivan, 72, a retiree who also lives at the Trade Winds park.
Next door, a businessman who said he had not been notified about last week's public hearing on the project, said he thought FDOT needed to consult business owners that would be affected.
James Muckenthaler, who operates Tint Worx, at 5927 14th St. W., was concerned that officials might include barriers that would prevent southbound customers from turning into his business.
"They want to force these changes," said Muckenthaler. "It absolutely needs to happen, but you need input from business owners about the changes."
U.S. 41, also known as Tamiami Trail, is a six-lane, undivided urban roadway, with an 11-foot bi-directional center left turn lane.
Preliminary plans call for a five- or six-foot sidewalk designed to fill in gaps along both the east and west sides of the highway, according to FDOT documents. Lighting will be installed primarily along its east side, with sidewalks built to "meander" around poles, documents said.
The cost of preliminary engineering for the project was listed at $150,000, with right-of-way acquisition costing $4.7 million and construction costing $1.3 million, documents said.
Manatee County commissioners Tuesday expressed surprise that there was money for the project, but they were happy to have it.
"I was just thrilled to pieces," said DiSabatino, in whose district the project will take place.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.