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    A Times Editorial

    Seel's driving force: making U.S. 19 safe

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 15, 2002

    Putting another traffic light on U.S. 19, the dysfunctional highway that the state will spend decades and hundreds of millions of dollars turning into a limited-access expressway, seems wrong-headed.

    But in Death Valley, the notorious stretch of U.S. 19 between Alderman and Klosterman roads, there seemed to be no other option. People have been injured or killed there in horrific accidents for years, and the state's installation of street lights, expected to improve conditions along the dark stretch, didn't do enough.

    Now, thanks largely to the dogged efforts of County Commissioner Karen Seel, a traffic light will go up in Death Valley, and other safety improvements are under construction all along the highway.

    There was no lack of complaining about conditions on U.S. 19 in past years. Many local residents remember the bumper sticker that adorned cars of U.S. 19 commuters during the 1980s: "Pray for me. I drive U.S. 19."

    But there was a lack of energy and effective effort by local officials, who clucked about the congestion and lamented the deaths and spoke wishfully about the need for overpasses, but did little else. And it seemed there was never enough money to really fix the road.

    That began to change in 2000, when Seel, a former Clearwater city commissioner appointed to the County Commission the year before, volunteered to head a task force to look for solutions. It wasn't the first group to tackle the problem of U.S. 19, and some government watchers probably thought Seel was politically naive to take on a lost cause and risk public humiliation.

    But Seel cast aside history and let it be known that any idea would be considered. With characteristic studiousness and hard work, she not only led the task force but started leaning on government officials from Congress to Tallahassee to Pinellas County, appealing to them to help save lives on U.S. 19. Thanks to U.S. Rep. Bill Young, who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, millions of dollars began rolling in for U.S. 19.

    The state still plans to build overpasses at major intersections eventually, but Seel's task force came up with lots of other ideas that are expected to improve the highway's safety in the meantime. "It's not rocket science, what we came up with," Seel said. But lighted street signs at intersections, better enforcement of traffic laws by local police agencies, channelizing median openings to prevent cut-through traffic, adding sidewalks, and more than 50 other ideas were proposed by the task force and are being acted upon.

    For years people who drove Death Valley urged the state and county to do something to slow down speeding traffic and make the area safer. No surprise that Seel was a part of the solution. She helped negotiate a deal with the developer of ParkCrest at Innisbrook, a growing apartment development just inside the U.S. 19 entrance to the Westin Innisbrook Resort. The developer will put up the traffic light at an estimated cost of $307,000 and will get an impact fee credit for half the cost.

    We have no doubt that lives will be saved because of Seel's work and that of other task force members, who were willing to think outside the box and invest many hours of their own time to make U.S. 19 safer for all motorists.

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