Traffic control causes tension
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
Pinellas County leaders figure they have a terrific plan to help ease the county's traffic congestion.
Instead of three governments running traffic signals, the county wants to take them over, synchronizing them and helping traffic flow more smoothly.
To county leaders, the pluses for the two cities, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, seem obvious. The county has even offered to pay for it all.
"Why wouldn't Clearwater jump on that?" asked County Commissioner Bob Stewart last week. "And why wouldn't St. Petersburg? What is their problem?"
But so far, the two cities have been lukewarm to the idea. Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel and other county officials have been working on the plan for two years, but the two cities still aren't sure they want to move forward.
The county has an explanation for that, too.
"It's a turf issue," Seel told her colleagues last week. Other commissioners talked about "turf" as well, suggesting that city officials don't want to cede authority and traffic jobs to the county.
Now, city leaders are unhappy. The discussion added another layer of tension to an already difficult issue in the often fractious relationship between the county and the cities. It comes just as the county's transportation planning board prepares to make a key vote on the issue. Seel plans to ask the group Wednesday to endorse the plan -- a move that would put symbolic pressure on the two cities to go forward.
Clearwater officials said last week they have legitimate reasons to hesitate. Mayor Brian Aungst called county commissioners' comments Tuesday "inflammatory" and "inaccurate."
City commissioners also have doubts about whether the county can provide quality signal maintenance and service.
"I'm not jumping out of the airplane until the county shows me they've got the ability to properly fold my parachute," said Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton.
Despite those issues, city leaders said they're still interested in the plan.
"We're going to try to do what's best for the citizens," Aungst said. "Hopefully we'll move past this little whatever-you-call-it and get this done."
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who didn't watch Tuesday's meeting, was less irked -- but also less interested in letting the county take over. Baker talked about cooperating, but city officials so far are only talking about county control of two corridors, U.S. 19 and 66th Street.
"Our intention would be to find a way to work together if we could," he said. But, Baker added, "We don't take lightly this possibility of someone else running our traffic system. It's not a decision you want to rush into."
By Thursday, Seel said she shouldn't have used the T-word.
"Maybe my choice of using "turf' was an unfortunate word," she said. "It is a big decision. Maybe a more polite way of putting it was, when you're looking at municipal services and consolidation efforts, it is uncomfortable. Change is sometimes fearful."
The county envisions a central control center where traffic signals could be operated and synchronized. Unifying the three systems would eliminate traffic back-ups that occur near city boundaries where lights are out of sync, county officials say.
"Traffic is a countywide problem," Seel said. "As people are transversing the county they don't want to stop and think about the fact that there are three different signal systems."
The county could enact a 1-cent gas tax to fund traffic signal operations and pay for them. That would save St. Petersburg $1.7-million a year and Clearwater $946,000 a year, the county says. Other Pinellas cities now pay the county to run their signals -- a charge the county also would eliminate. The county puts the total yearly savings to all the cities at $2.7-million per year.
Meanwhile, a related "intelligent" signal system on major corridors, starting with U.S. 19 and Gulf to Bay Boulevard, would offer even more sophisticated timing, using cameras and advice to motorists when traffic backs up.
St. Petersburg officials said they're ready to work with the county on those corridors. But key details on those streets, as well as others, remain. St. Petersburg officials say they have too many special events to turn the timing of their lights over to someone else. Clearwater officials say they've heard reports that the county doesn't maintain and repair its signals well, a charge that Administrator Steve Spratt says is unfounded.
"In my 13 months here, I don't remember seeing any complaints from any other city," Spratt said.
County officials have offered to make changes, including contracting with the cities to maintain the signals and bringing staff from both cities into a management team.
But even those changes, which county officials say they have made to compromise with the cities, have become an issue. Aungst called the county proposal a "floating target." City officials say they're not sure who would be responsible for what.
"The county's proposal has shifted back and forth a good bit, so we're trying to nail down what the proposal is," Baker said.
Baker also disagreed with the county's plan to ask the transportation board, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which has representatives from several cities, for support.
"That is not how you sit down and negotiate a deal with somebody you're trying to become partners with," Baker said. "I would think Karen would want to spend her time working with the cities."
County officials say they're seeking the MPO resolution to try to move the issue ahead. Work on the first "intelligent" corridor is set to start next month, and the county must decide by July whether to add a penny gas tax this year.
Seel and other county officials said they're frustrated the issue has taken so long. Spratt said it's just the type of "regional issue" that Pinellas cities have said the county should take over rather than provide "city" services to the unincorporated county.
"Change is always difficult, but no, I did not" think the issue would be so controversial, Seel said. "I thought it would be like U.S. 19, that people would realize it's a problem and would want to globally address this."
Still, Seel said she's confident the governments can work out a solution.
"There are going to be a lot of hefty issues (for Pinellas governments) to talk about," she said. "This is probably low-hanging fruit. This is a way to start ... cooperation and cost savings and efficiency."
Aungst also said the problems can be worked out.
"I think we'll be able to get this done," he said. "We know we have a traffic issue and we know we have to work it out."
-- Staff writer Jennifer Farrell contributed to this report.
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