Sunday, April 11, marked the fifth anniversary of UM student Ashley Kelly’s untimely death.
Five years ago, Kelly, a 19-year-old freshman majoring in political science and journalism, decided to go to T.G.I. Friday’s across from campus one Monday night with her roommate to discuss where they were going to live for their sophomore year.
While crossing U.S. 1, Kelly and her roommate were struck by an SUV that had ran a red light at Mariposa Court. Her roommate’s injuries were minor, but Kelly died in the hours following the accident. The driver of the SUV was issued a ticket for disobeying a traffic signal. Her license was suspended and she was ordered to donate $250 to the Ashley Kelly Memorial Fund.
“It was a terrible tragedy,” said Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick in a recent interview. “She was not the first to be killed. U.S. 1 is dangerous.”
Since 1990, at least six students have been struck crossing the two major roadways that border campus: Ponce de Leon Boulevard and U.S. 1. Three of the incidents proved fatal, resulting in the deaths of a freshman in November 1990, a junior in February 1998 and Kelly in April 2005.
Two days after Kelly’s death, a group of students gathered at the university’s Metrorail station near the site of the accident to pay tribute to her and to call for the immediate construction of a pedestrian bridge. That same day, student government passed the “Ashley Kelly Resolution” recommending a pedestrian overpass be built across U.S. 1 at Mariposa Court.
“I remember that day well,” said UM alumnus Peter Maki, the SG president for the 2004-2005 school year.
Maki knew he had to go beyond petitioning the university administration. The pedestrian bridge would be built on county and city land, which is outside of the jurisdiction of the university. Thus, Maki began attending Miami-Dade Transit meetings.
“A lot of our initial success was getting it to the press,” Maki said in a phone interview from Iraq, where he is serving in the U.S. military. “Local politicians realized they needed to respond.”
An initiative to build a pedestrian overpass at Mariposa Court, similar to those constructed over U.S. 1 at the Vizcaya and Douglas Road Metrorail stations, had been introduced following the student death in 1998. However, it wasn’t added to the Miami-Dade County’s People’s Transportation Plan until 2003. It was Kelly’s death in 2005, two years later, that finally propelled plans for the pedestrian bridge forward.
Two prospective bridge designs- one modern, the other Mediterranean- were presented at a Miami-Dade Transit meeting in August 2007. The city of Coral Gables endorsed the Mediterranean design, and construction was expected to commence and be completed by spring 2010.
“When we first heard 2010, we said that’s not good enough,” Maki said. “It’s unacceptable from a student point of view, but it’s realistic. These things take a long time and require millions of dollars.”
The bridge was expected to cost $5.6 million (now $7.5 million), of which the state of Florida would finance 27 percent and the remaining 73 percent of the funding would come from the People’s Transportation Plan, which was funded by a half-penny transportation sales tax surcharge for transit projects around the county.
But since then, the country entered its worst recession since the Great Depression.
“The pedestrian overpass at the university Metrorail station project was placed on hold indefinitely in September 2008 due to fiscal challenges faced by Miami Dade Transit [MDT],” said Albert Hernandez, assistant director of engineering, planning and development for MDT.
Mayor Slesnick would like to see the bridge built but, like the university, Coral Gables does not have full jurisdiction over the pedestrian bridge project.
“I care about the lives of students, lives on U.S. 1,” he said. “But this is a road we have partners in, partners who can’t produce right now. I don’t think there’s anyone to blame here. It’s about the times which derailed a great project.”
Despite matters of jurisdiction, Hernandez asserted that “the university can fund the design and construction of the bridge. I do not see a problem getting the county or FDOT to approve this.”
Though university officials say this is not a likely scenario, UM’s director of government affairs Juan Carlos del Valle stressed that the pedestrian bridge is a major priority and that the university is lobbying the county, but Janet Gavarette, associate vice president of campus planning and development, was more definitive.
“The university is not considering undertaking any funding initiative towards the pedestrian bridge. Our primary safety focus is with safety on campus,” she said.
Once funding becomes available at the county level, however, Slesnick is confident that MDT will build the bridge.
“When the money returns, they’ll pick it up,” he said. “I don’t think it is in the cards for a long time.”
And as for its prospective value, Slesnick pointed out that such a bridge would probably prevent some pedestrian accidents near Mariposa Court.
“It will not save a lot of lives only in one location,” he said. “[But] people won’t walk an extra five blocks to cross at a pedestrian crosswalk… we approved it because we thought it was a good step forward.”
Like Slesnick, Maki also recognizes that the pedestrian bridge will not be a panacea.
“You’re never going to stop reckless teenagers from running across the street without looking both ways. There’s no replacement for common sense,” Maki said. “That being said, clearly this is a problem intersection. I think students would use it.”
Graduate student Mario Martinez, who was crossing U.S. 1 one day last week, doesn’t think the intersection is especially dangerous. He said he has “never seen any accidents.” However, he did note how the pedestrian indicator lights for the crosswalks often malfunction.
“If they built one [a pedestrian bridge], I’d use it,” Martinez said.
Senior Louis Deglora, on the other hand, said he didn’t think a bridge was necessary.
“It’s pretty easy [crossing U.S. 1]. It’s not that dangerous,” Deglora said.
Maki thinks once the project funds are available, it is going to take more than MDT to ensure that the bridge is built.
“The public forgets,” Maki said. “Students have to raise this issue. At the end of the day… if students want to make it an issue again, local politicians and student administrators responded well to reasonable requests.”
Stephanie Genuardi may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.