Last week, I was asked to give a presentation to the city council regarding the feasibility of allowing golf carts to operate legally on Gulfport roadways. In the days leading up to that workshop session, many asked for my opinion on the issue, and indeed I expressed some concerns. Since my presentation, I have discovered that some may consider me an obstacle to the legalization of golf carts in Gulfport.
Please let me take a moment to clarify my position on this touchy subject.
I am not opposed to the safe operation of these vehicles on our roadways. My concern is that nobody has any way to determine what is or is not safe. There are no established standards, and absent those standards, the city puts itself at risk by attempting to create its own.
The staus quo is that golf carts are illegal. Golf carts, which are designed for operation on golf courses at speeds less than 20 miles per hour, may not be driven on public roadways. There is a reason for this; the legislature recognizes that they are inherently unsafe, specifying that if cities want to make an exception to the rule, they do so at their own risk. The law gives municipal governments the authority to allow these vehicles to be operated on city roads, but only after making a determination that those roads are safe in consideration of the speed, volume, and character of traffic. Unfortunately, neither the federal or state departments of transportation have published criteria for what constitutes safe speed, volume, or character. This means that the city is responsible for establishing those definitions, and I simply do not believe our staff is qualified to do so. The DOT employs traffic engineers and analysts who develop such policies based on extensive research and use of specialized equipment and software. Local governments rely on their expertise because we do not have access to those kinds of resources.
If we do proceed with developing our own standards, the logical next step is to consider what others have done. Several other cities and neighborhoods have passed ordinances allowing golf cart operation on roadways. I have looked at many of these, and I have seen some trends in what they consider safe. Some common traits:
1. Speed limits do not exceed 30 mph
2. Roadways are no more than two lanes
3. Residential areas only
Applying these standards to Gulfport would eliminate 49th Street north of 23rd Avenue, all of Gulfport Blvd., and some portions of Beach Blvd. In fact, if Pinellas County holds fast to its own rules, they would actually prohibit golf cart operation on county roads within the city of Gulfport, thereby eliminating 58th Street as well. Curiously, none of the other cities seem to have addressed traffic volume in their standards. Considering the amount of traffic, I think it would be prudent to exclude 15th Avenue, and maybe even 11th Avenue from the list of permitted roads.
What we end up with is a city divided into exclusion zones, if you will. Unless we allow carts to cross roadways they may not otherwise drive upon, the vehicles would never be allowed to leave their home neighborhoods. If we do allow crossings, we will have to make some determinations as to where it is safe to cross these streets. Again, there are no established standards.
Aside from the issue of deciding which streets to use, we also have to consider a multitude of other questions. Do we require licensed drivers, insurance, safety equipment, electric motors only, etc? Each of these would have to be addressed in the city ordinance, and they would all be subject to regulation by the police department.
Of note in consideration of this subject is the fact that modified golf carts are already legal on Gulfport roads. Fitted with certain safety equipment, golf carts may be legally registered as low-speed vehicles, which means they can be driven by licensed drivers on public streets with speed limits up to 35 miles per hour. Because these vehicles are certified by their manufacturer and recognized by the state to be safe for public operation, the city assumes no risk or responsibility for their use. The down side, of course, is that they cost more money to purchase and maintain.
In the end, the decision is up to the elected officials. My job is simply to give them as much information as I can before they make that decision and then to enforce the rules they put in place. Whatever we decide as a community, I am happy to do my part to make it work.