Over the weekend, one of Florida International University’s major student safety concerns came to a nightmarish head.
Alexis Dale, 18, was hit and killed while crossing Southwest Eighth Street at 109th Avenue. The information technology student died making the commute hundreds of her peers do every day — across a jam-packed seven-lane highway dividing the campus from the spillover of student housing. The Florida Highway Patrol is still investigating the cause of the fatal accident.
Bounded by roads on all sides, FIU’s growth has stretched into the neighboring city of Sweetwater, which has increased foot traffic across the road, and shuttles that run every 20 minutes on weekdays aren’t as popular as authorities had hoped.
The solution, a nearly 40-foot wide pedestrian bridge crossing Southwest Eighth Street, is a little over a year away from completion. The new structure will have benches, tables, shade, plazas on each end — even WiFi.
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“Not only is it a bridge, it’s a place,” said Robert Herrada, Sweetwater’s director of operations. “This is place-making.”
The bridge is even ahead of schedule. It’s slated to open in December 2018 instead of February 2019, as first forecast.
The university has previously tried to keep students safe with the shuttles, adding another crosswalk and dedicating a campus police team strictly to pedestrian and traffic safety, as well as various advocacy campaigns. But shuttle ridership isn’t as high as hoped and they also don’t run on the weekends, which is when Dale was killed.
“Students say they don’t want to wait. They’d rather just walk to campus,” said Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez.
Students and community advocates have been calling for a pedestrian bridge for years, drawing comparisons to the bridge connecting the University of Miami campus to the University Centre strip mall, which was built after eight UM students were killed or seriously injured crossing the intersection.
When Kenneth Jessell, FIU’s Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer, arrived in 2009, he said FIU President Mark Rosenberg took him into Sweetwater and told him he wanted to “bridge the gap” between the two cities and the two populations.
“We want to take down the Berlin wall of Southwest 8th that divides Sweetwater and our FIU,” he said.
Plans to build a bridge didn’t start to shape until 2010, when the university and Sweetwater started applying for a U.S. Department of Transportation “TIGER” grant.
After three rounds of applications, they finally won the $11.4 million grant in 2013, but ground wasn’t broken for three more years because of trouble nailing down the bridge’s exact location. The landing site switched from east of 109th to west due to concerns with the Florida water management district, and a funding boost moved the Sweetwater landing site to the north side of the canal, rather than the south side.
The 320-foot bridge will cost about $9 million, with the rest of the grant going toward widening sidewalks in Sweetwater, a plaza and improving public transportation options in the city.
It’s the centerpiece structure for the “UniversityCity” partnership between FIU and Sweetwater, where the mayor said 20 percent of the city’s residents are either FIU students or faculty. Sweetwater hopes to gain an economically viable downtown from the agreement, while the university seeks to expand its footprint.
With the two FIU-focused residential buildings already there — 109 Tower and 4th Street Commons — Herrada said there are about 4,000 students or faculty in the city. He expects that to double in a couple years as the project progresses, including the 2018 opening of the University Bridge Residences.
“It’s really going to be amazing,” Jessell said.