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Carl Wernicke: Pedestrian Overpasses Could Ease Pensacola Beach Traffic

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Over more than 30 years as a reporter and editor at the Pensacola News Journal, I watched certain  community issues that never seemed to go away. Everyone agreed on the problem, but no one could agree on a solution.

So we debated the problem, over and over.

One such evergreen issue is traffic on Pensacola Beach. Actually, it’s two problems. Traffic, and parking.

I see no real solution for parking. This area is growing, and tourism is growing. What isn’t growing is the size of the beach. There simply isn’t room.

There have been plenty of proposed solutions: shuttle buses, parking garages, parking barges, trolleys, ferries, etc. The reality is that parking will always be tight. Frankly, I’m pleased we haven’t sacrificed more of the beach for parking.

Meanwhile, beach traffic has returned to the news. And, it also is two problems. We need to move cars, and we need to move people.

Again, there is no magic solution.

But unlike the parking problem, I think there is a practical and significant improvement available. Unfortunately, it’s always rejected for shortsighted reasons.

The obvious need is to separate, as much as possible, the flow of people from the flow of cars. That situation was actually worsened by enforcing laws that require cars to stop for people in the crosswalks on Via De Luna Drive.

Now, I agree with enforcing this law. If we’re going to co-mingle people and cars, we should give pedestrians the priority, and ensure their safety.

But we need to separate the two traffic flows. How? Build pedestrian overpasses like the one that works so well in Gulf Breeze over U.S. 98.

This has long been proposed, but always rejected for the same two reasons: it’s costly, and it will eliminate already scarce parking.

Both are true. Both are bad arguments.

Pensacola Beach is our No. 1 tourism asset. We can’t afford a few million dollars to significantly improve one of its worst problems? It is not fiscal responsibility to let a problem fester because you are too cheap to fix it. It’s like ignoring a roof leak; the problem only gets worse over time.

At our house on Pensacola Beach, on weekends we watch traffic regularly back up to 8 p.m. as cars try to exit through throngs of pedestrians streaming off the beach, headed back to their rooms or the bars and restaurants. Beach residents uniformly blame the worsening traffic on the crosswalks.

As for losing parking spots, how many are we talking ­-- 20? 50? That won’t add noticeably to the parking problem, but getting thousands of pedestrians off Via De Luna would more than compensate.

If we had built an overpass (or overpasses … we need at least two) years ago, all of this would be moot. But because we let a few million dollars scare us, we keep coming back to look for solutions that don’t exist.

Meanwhile, what’s scary is watching how many cars still fail to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks. Some people simply dart into traffic, trusting that everyone will stop. And many people don’t push the buttons that trigger the warning lights. With all the cars and people, it can be hard to tell when someone is crossing, especially at dusk or at night.

My fear is that someone, maybe a child, will get killed before we take real action. Otherwise, 30 years from now, we’ll still be wringing our hands.

Carl Wernicke is a native of Pensacola. He graduated from the University of Florida in 1975 with a degree in journalism. After 33 years as a reporter and editor, he retired from the Pensacola News Journal in April 2012; he spent the last 15 years at the PNJ as editor of the editorial page. He joined the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition in 2012 as Senior Writer and Communications Manager, and retired from IHMC in 2015.His hobbies include reading, traveling, gardening, hiking, enjoying nature around his home in Downtown Pensacola, as well as watching baseball and college football, especially the Florida Gators and New York Yankees. His wife, Patti, retired as a senior vice president at Gulf Winds Federal Credit Union and is a Master Gardener. Carl is a regular contributor to WUWF. His commentaries focus on life in and around the Pensacola area and range in subject matter from birding to downtown redevelopment and from preserving our natural heritage to life in local neighborhoods.