Downtown road projects slow but steady

Motorists drive north on Southeast First Avenue where a lane is blocked for road construction in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted March 23, 2021 | By Ainslie Lee, Ocala Gazette

Motorists drive north on Southeast First Avenue where a lane is blocked for road construction in this September file photo. The city is revamping downtown streets in an effort to make them friendlier to golf carts, cyclists and pedestrians. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Southeast Watula Avenue recently reopened with fresh asphalt and brick inlays at the East Fort King Street intersection.

And while the project looks good, Ocala City Council President Justin Grabelle asked the question many residents were likely wondering.

What took so long?

Grabelle asked City Engineer Sean Lanier about the delay during the city’s strategic planning meeting on March 10.

Southeast Watula Avenue’s facelift began on Nov. 2 and took four months to complete.

Grabelle said he would pass the closed-off intersection regularly but would go weeks without seeing workers.

According to Lanier, the construction crew was juggling the road project and a project at the Ocala Airport.

“A lot of the issue was the work at the airport was behind because of issues they were having there,” Lanier said. “That’s what happens when you have a paid contractor, and they commit a crew, but they’re trying to do two jobs, and they’re not separate crews.”

On top of manpower, the city also ran into issues getting materials.

“You have the COVID hit, and contractors and supplies are harder to get,” said Eric Smith, assistant city transportation engineer.

Prices for materials are higher, and crews are smaller due to COVID-19 precautions, Smith said.

The Southeast Watula revamp is one of many completed or planned road projects in the city.

The city’s engineer’s office has nearly completed its Transportation Rehabilitation Improvement Project (TRIP) on Southeast First Avenue and is just waiting to put down permanent road striping.

The biggest change to Southeast First Avenue, which runs north, is the reduction from two lanes to one for the portion closest to the downtown square.

South Magnolia Avenue, which runs south, also will get the TRIP treatment starting in April.

Lanier said that the project should be done by July. The improvements on South Magnolia will span from State Road 40 to Southwest Eighth Street and are in conjunction with the Mellow Mushroom restaurant coming downtown. The restaurant is under construction at the corner of Magnolia and Fort King Street.

A portion of South Magnolia will also become one-lane and feature brick crosswalks.

The city is trying to make downtown roads friendlier to golf carts, bicycles and pedestrians.

“You want to build a hub – someplace you are proud to come look at,” Smith said. “We want to make it a destination spot. It also makes (traffic) flow a lot better.”

Traffic studies performed ahead of the projects showed there wasn’t a need for traffic signals at many intersections. The switch to stop signs has improved safety by providing greater sight distance, according to Smith.

Since finishing turning Northeast First Avenue into one lane last year, there hasn’t been a vehicle damaged or pedestrian hit, according to reports.

“I felt very proud to put that in the report,” Smith said.

With a slew of projects in the works, Grabelle urged the city engineer to remember the lessons learned from the Watula Avenue project.

“If we’re going to have one crew doing two jobs at one time, we need to make sure they have the capabilities,” Grabelle said. “It’s not fair to the residents who live in this area.”

However, speed isn’t everything, Lanier said.

“I call it the project management triangle,” Lanier said. “Good, fast, cheap… You can never get all three. If you want it good and fast, it’s not going to be cheap. We want everything to be good, but we gave up on the fast.”

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