By Duwayne Escobedo
For nearly 15 years, Pensacola Christian College has approached the Escambia County Commission about turning Rawson Lane over to it. Each time it has come up, commissioners have voted against closing the road.
This time, PCC officials argue its needed to protect its students when they cross the street on the campus’ eastern border and to build a $40 million dormitory for the growing college.
“Many citizens, who have paid their property taxes for 50 to 60 years, don’t want that road closed,” said District 3 Commissioner Lumon May. “There is not a safety issue. That is manufactured to give us an illusion that there is. But it is not a safety issue in my opinion.”
Political observers predict the county commission will vote for PCC’s longtime wish this time, 3-2. After watching the earlier board discussion, they predict District 2 Commissioner Jeff Bergosh, District 1 Commissioner Doug Underhill, and District 4 Commissioner Grover Robinson will vote for the closure. Robinson has opposed closure in the past.
The county is holding a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Monday to debate and decide whether to vacate or close it forever and give it to the college to gate at both ends, or turn down PCC officials’ request again.
However, Rawson Lane connects Airport Boulevard and Brent Lane and is used by Norwood community residents and other Escambia citizens, who travel the road to save time cutting between the two state roads. It also is a popular route for walkers and bicyclists.
An Engineering & Planning Resources study released in January found that nearly 3,000 vehicles use the roadway a day. It recommends keeping the street open in case of an emergency, train derailment, natural disasters or a tragic car accident for emergency service vehicles to use. It also recommends trying other solutions before closure to make it safer, such as speed bumps and other inexpensive calming methods that would slow down traffic and cut down on the number of vehicles that use the short cut.
May said the study doesn’t consider what closure would do to traffic congestion on Airport and Brent.
“We’ve not looked at any other alternative solutions,” May said. “How about slowing speed, using calming devices, better lighting or a larger shoulder on the side of the road? Before full closure we have to look at every option.”
May said he’s concerned that Pensacola Christian College is using its clout and following to drown out the individuals who oppose closing the road and giving the nearly four acres over to the college to use as it sees fit.
“Pensacola Christian has been very successful in advocating their position,” May said. “But citizens and the people who use it have the same right to protest it. I am going into this decision with an open mind. I will listen to the citizens before I vote. This is not willy-nilly. This is one of the most important decisions about traffic the county will make.”
In the past, the county has normally voted against vacating a road or right-of-way, if even one person used it.
May pointed out that Pensacola State College didn’t close College Boulevard but instead built a roundabout and beautified the street. The University of West Florida employed speed bumps to slow down traffic on University Parkway and landscaped the road. The second-term commissioner also said closure of Rawson Lane could open the county to a lawsuit from residents.
“This (PCC request) is unprecedented,” May said. “I see no greater public good happening, if you close the road to the public which uses it.”