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Think traffic's bad here? Try Lakeland

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Column by Jim Clark

It may be a promise that’s hard to keep, but I’m going to do my darndest never to complain again about traffic in Ocala and Marion County, particularly on State Road 200.
You see, I just spent a weekend in Lakeland.
I moved out of Lakeland just under 35 years ago. I was the news editor of The Ledger and was named editor at another paper in the same group in Palatka.
We lived in North Lakeland, in a relatively remote area, and my children went to Lake Gibson schools, which were out in the middle of nowhere. We even had an orange tree in our backyard (there are probably regulations against that now) and lived in an entire neighborhood that had been carved out of an orange grove.
Now those schools are practically in a city by themselves in the area known as North Lakeland.
The main North Lakeland area is bounded by Interstate 4 on the south and goes up three main roads: U.S. Highway 98, Lakeland Hills Boulevard (which runs right past the baseball stadium) and Kathleen Road, which is apparently just starting to grow (I found a Salvation Army and a Publix where there used to be nothing).
I went to Lakeland to watch the boys state basketball tournament, which used to be in the middle of March but has gradually moved into “February madness.” I know the quickest way to The Lakeland Center (which used to be the Lakeland Civic Center), so I planned accordingly. I booked a motel at the intersection of the Interstate and U.S. 98.
Bad decision.
The motel was nice enough, although a little pricey, but that wasn’t the problem. Getting out of the motel to go south into Lakeland was.
The planners who decided how State Road 200 would look must have moved to Lakeland. Like Ocala, they never heard of a thing that’s popular not only in Florida but throughout the country ... service roads. With service roads (the best I saw were in Coral Springs), you have traffic moving parallel to the highway, with access points only at major intersections with traffic lights. Vehicles from shopping (the Lakeland Mall was across the highway, no mall when I lived there), from restaurants and, yes from motels, exit onto a service road and can only get onto the main highway at a traffic light, where it’s easy to turn in either direction. Meanwhile, traffic zips along on the main road, helped by synchronized lights (they never heard of those, either) and the chance of accidents drops.
That takes planning. It takes a firm enforcement. As on State Road 200, that didn’t happen on U.S. 98, where you take your life in your hands as you journey up or down the highway.
I saw the aftermath of two major accidents on Saturday, one at the entrance to Walmart (no Walmart when I lived there) and another just south of the Interstate on 98. Those made me cringe just a little more.
If I take another trip to Lakeland, it will be in late July, when the St. Lucie Mets visit for a minor-league four-game series, Thursday through Sunday (for some reason all are afternoon games).
But I will not be going leisurely to events “in season,” unless one of our local teams makes it to the basketball finals, which is rare.
Besides, the finals are on television, if you have Bright House or Cox. Sipping a nice glass of iced tea in my living room instead of muttering at other drivers sounds like a great way to watch the playoffs.