Crusading for sidewalk safety

Leonard Road is drawing a lot of attention, but not the kind that most residents want.

Developers have ambitious plans for large tracts of wooded land along the curvy two-lane road that winds from U.S. 41, almost to State Road 54. More than 300 single-family homes, an assisted living facility, medical office and retail are on the drawing board.

Though Leonard dead-ends just shy of State Road 54, the road eventually will be paved and extended, according to site plans on file with Pasco County. Area residents in this Lutz neighborhood are bracing for a future as a cut-through road from U.S. 41 to State Road 54.

Leonard Road residents want the county to build a sidewalk to protect pedestrians and bicyclists. On a recent afternoon, a motorist in a car drove past, from left, Mike Benjamin, David Haynes and Ed Klaameyer. (Kathy Steele/Staff Photo)

Leonard Road residents want the county to build a sidewalk to protect pedestrians and bicyclists. On a recent afternoon, a motorist in a car drove past, from left, Mike Benjamin, David Haynes and Ed Klaameyer.
(Kathy Steele/Staff Photo)

To local residents, the coming development is a warning flag for more traffic, and added dangers to pedestrians and bicyclists who already share the road with motorists who navigate Leonard Road’s curves.

Residents have lobbied for years to get a sidewalk on the north side of Leonard.

“We’re not asking for an amenity,” said Mike Benjamin. “This is a safety issue. There’s going to be substantially more traffic, and it already is way dangerous.”

On a recent afternoon, a couple walked along the road’s shoulder toward U.S. 41. A man trudged in the opposite direction, toting a plastic bag filled with items purchased at a local store.

And, a young boy pedaled his bicycle as cars passed by in each direction.

That is a daily trek for many residents.

Benjamin knows of three residents, in motorized wheelchairs, who hang close to the edge of the pavement as they head to U.S. 41.

Two years ago, David Haynes landed in the gully with banged up knees when he fell from his bicycle, as two vehicles nearly collided along a curve in the road.

“There was no place to get off the road,” he said.

When traffic comes around the corner, Benjamin said, “People can’t see them in advance.”

In winter months, the woods on the south side of the road are bare. But, once spring arrives, trees will bloom, and Benjamin said, “It will further impede anyone’s vision going around the curve.”

The worst stretch of Leonard is from U.S. 41 to Cot Road at the entrance into Lake Como Family Nudist Resort. Speed limit signs warn motorists heading west to slow to 20 miles per hour as they enter the first curve, a short distance from Lake Como. The posted speed falls to 15 miles per hour in front of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which operates the Little Lambs Preschool. A second curve swings past Lake Como before the road straightens on its path toward Henley Road, and Leonard’s dead-end before State Road 54.

Nearly 110 children attend the church’s preschool. Drop-offs and pick-ups add up to about 107,000 annual vehicle trips, according to Ed Klaameyer, property director on the church’s board of directors.

“That’s a lot of potential issues,” he said.

Two years ago, residents gathered more than 190 signatures on a petition asking for a sidewalk. Last year, they were hopeful when the county planted surveying stakes. But, nothing happened.

In October, more than 20 residents of Leonard Road came to a town hall meeting, held by Pasco County Chairwoman Kathryn Starkey and county officials. They hoped to plead their case publicly, but landed at the bottom of the agenda list.

The meeting ran long, and sidewalks never came up.

“We were all disappointed,” Benjamin said. “Our voice was never heard.”

Benjamin has sent some 50 emails and made numerous phone calls to keep pushing for help.

Starkey is a frequent recipient of emails and phone calls from area residents. She is sympathetic to their cause.

“I’m working on it,” she said. “I’m trying to find a solution.”

Leonard Road is on the county’s priority list of alternative transportation projects, but it sits just one position above last place on a list of 23 priorities. It is a list updated every year and given to the Florida Department of Transportation as a guide in what projects to fund in Pasco with federal dollars.

Leonard won’t be funded in 2016 and likely not in 2017, said Allen Howell, the county’s senior planner for bicycles and pedestrians.

In an email sent to Benjamin about two years ago, Howell cited the estimated sidewalk cost at about $176,000. As of June 2015, the cost was pegged at about $250,000.

Projects for new sidewalks and trails start with requests from citizens, county staff and county commissioners. They are ranked on a point system for criteria such as safety, connectivity to existing sidewalks and trails, accessibility to schools and transit stops, and improved mobility in low-come and minority neighborhoods.

Roads with faster speeds, such as 45 miles per hour, get more points than roads with slower speeds of 30 mph or lower.

“I really feel sorry for them out there, but the hard reality is it’s one of hundreds of areas that are unsafe because of no sidewalks,” Howell said. “It’s tough selecting the priority to see which gets a sidewalk first.”

But, Benjamin said federal money isn’t the only option, since Pasco residents supported renewal of the Penny for Pasco program.

“We elected people to go and figure out how to get these things built for us,” he said.

The neighborhood has done some things on its own for safety. Holy Trinity handed out bright orange safety vests to residents who are frequent walkers or bicyclists on Leonard.

“You really have to have your wits about you to deal with traffic,” said Klaameyer.

Haynes never leaves home without his when he hops aboard his bicycle.

“I’m trying to keep from getting hit,” he said.

Published March 23, 2016

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