Cervantes Still Deadly
By Danielle Brown
Nearly one year after the tragic hit-and-run that left one woman and an infant dead, Pensacola and Escambia County officials continue to push for pedestrian safety improvements on West Cervantes Street.
With State Sen. Doug Broxson (R-Gulf Breeze) and State Rep. Alex Andrade (R-Pensacola) heading the pedestrian safety project, the Florida Legislature has approved $600,000 toward improvements to be made ahead of the construction scheduled in 2021. Even after years of work and research put into the project, officials are concerned Gov. Ron DeSantis could veto the appropriation in his review of the annual budget.
To get ahead of a veto, the Escambia County Board of County Commissioners sent a letter last month to Gov. DeSantis in support of the project.
“This corridor is extremely dangerous for vehicular traffic as well as pedestrians,” wrote the board. “In the past five years, there have been 682 crashes along this stretch of Cervantes Street and nine fatalities.”
Rep. Andrade, who worked closely with Sen. Broxson on this “high priority” project, said they would not stop if they do not gain the governor’s support.
“Even if this money is vetoed, this project will start being worked on in 2021,” Andrade said. “It’s going to be part of FDOT’s five-year plan.”
If the money is not vetoed, Andrade said construction would hopefully begin this year, which the Brownsville community has long awaited.
Two Deaths Too Many
On June 6, 2018, Nephateria Monique Williams, 28, Quineka Tyon Baldwin, 27, and Neariaah Ikerria Williams, Baldwin’s 8-month-old daughter, were struck by a car going over 90 mph while they crossed West Cervantes Street. Williams and the baby were both killed in the accident, while Baldwin was rushed to the hospital.
A press conference was held near the crash site on the night of the accident where Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn, Commissioner Lumon May and former Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward gave their condolences and expressed their intentions to prevent similar accidents in the future.
“This is horrific—a sad night and a sad event,” Cannada-Wynn said. “We have done some things here—the mayor, Commissioner May, Sen. Broxson—to focus some attention to Cervantes and the lighting and everything here. I don’t know if that would have changed the outcome here today, but there are some things in the works.”
The following week, light installation crews began placing LED street lights along areas of Cervantes Street where pedestrians are most at risk. The lights had already been in the city’s agenda before the accident happened but were pushed as a top priority after the fatal incident.
In an attempt to accelerate additional traffic improvements after the fatal accident, Christian Wagley, a Pensacola resident and the principal at Sustainable Town Concepts, started an online petition that was endorsed by the Florida-Alabama Transportation Planning Organization.
“The purpose of the petition was to show the local transportation officials how serious the community was about wanting an immediate fix to the very deadly conditions that exist on Cervantes Street,” Wagley told Inweekly recently. “A year later, pretty much none of the demands on that petition have been met.”
The petition, which was signed by over 300 citizens, called for increased pedestrian safety measures on West Cervantes Street, including changing the speed limit from 35 to 30 mph, narrowing the lanes from 11 feet to 10 or 10.5 feet, increasing PPD enforcement of the speed limit and adding designated crosswalks with signals that will be easily visible at night.
Meanwhile, the city and county budgeted a combined $2 million with a supplementary $5.5 million from state and federal transportation funds toward the project, but action was still slow moving because of the process through FDOT.
In addition to allocating the funds, the city council also sent a letter to FDOT to fast track construction of short-term safety improvements to the West Cervantes Street corridor.
“It is the City Council’s urgent desire that the committed local funds be used by FDOT to quickly construct these safety improvements on behalf of our citizens,” the letter stated.
Included in the letter were several examples of successful pedestrian safety implementations in other high traffic and pedestrian areas in the state. Pictures of mid-block crosswalks in the downtown area of Fort Walton Beach and in front of Big Kahuna’s in Destin were shown as examples of the redesign in store for Cervantes Street.
Even after this letter was sent to FDOT, no changes had been made on West Cervantes Street aside from the 74 LED street lights installed. Consequently, the number of car and pedestrian collisions along this dangerous strip continue to rise.
Still Not Safe
Rep. Andrade said that among the many ways these accidents along Cervantes Street can be avoided is installing a raised median.
“Instead of having what looks like five lanes that are just flat across, you have a raised median in the middle so someone walking across can stop in the middle,” Andrade said.
On the other hand, Commissioner May believes more upgrades need to be done than adding medians, crosswalks and other traffic calming measures; for example, lifting the sidewalks up from the street.
“The sidewalks are too small; they’re too close,” he said. “That lift is a lift that’s not going to happen in the next 5-10 years. The way it was explained to me in the (Brownsville Community) Center—we had a meeting last Wednesday with the DOT—is you’re looking at all your inlets, all your drainage, all your stormwater, all of your right of ways, in the domain and taking property—that’s probably a 20 or 30 million dollar lift.”
May continued, “My concern is most of the accidents are not people trying to cross the street. They’re people walking on those narrow sidewalks because they’re too close. I believe that those residential houses at its core are too close to the road … I don’t know if we have a complete solution for that.”
Wagley believes that although the city’s plans for improvements are great, it’s ultimately the speeding that poses the biggest threat.
“There’s no one single element of the redesign that will magically fix everything,” Wagley said. “It’s going to take a combination of the traffic calming, of narrowing the street, of adding crosswalks. But the single most important thing that has to happen is that the traffic speeds have to be reduced … When cars are only going 30 mph, everybody has time, much more time, to react, and you don’t have a bad situation. When cars are going 45, which is what they’re doing there, there’s not the time to react to a mistake.”
Inweekly sat down with Commissioner May on the eve of the anniversary of the deaths of Nephateria Monique Williams and Neariaah Ikerria Williams to discuss the challenge to make West Pensacola streets safer for residents.
May said the city of Pensacola missed an opportunity for improvement 14 years ago when it failed to implement the West Pensacola Neighborhood Plan, which called for the development of a town center on West Cervantes Street with a public school, library and grocery store.
If the plan had been implemented, May believes it would have slowed the traffic, bringing more walkability to the community.
“I was part of that Westside development plan, where we were going to tear those hotels down and hopefully spur some private development and make that more walkable,” the commissioner said. “When you look at Brownsville and Morris Court, two of the poorest in Escambia County, most of the traffic is split traffic. Those cars speeding through are not residents. They’re just coming from the west side to downtown.”
Nevertheless, he is optimistic that West Pensacola and Brownsville can still be revitalized with the right attention moving forward.
“Maybe not the town center with the school because Global went down on Pace Boulevard, but we still have an opportunity because there’s a lot of vacant land,” May said. “There’s a lot of opportunity. I think the plan needs to be modified, but I think that, unfortunately, that was a lost opportunity.”
He continued, “Millions of dollars of studies and plans and truckloads full of ideas and concepts, but we’ve been slow to implement anything in my opinion that has brought about substantial change to Brownsville.
Now, with more powerful people involved in the project compared to previous years, Commissioner May believes there is a strong chance that last year’s plans will soon turn into action pending the governor’s approval of the $600,000 appropriation.
“We have our state representatives paying attention to Brownsville, and I think the business community realizes that if we don’t do something on Cervantes, if we don’t develop the alphabet street of the Western corridor to the city, then there’s not going to be any more growth,” May said.
The results from the governor’s review of the $91.3 billion budget could be announced any day.