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Streets to be buttoned up

Starting today, stretches along the waterfront race course will be closed. Navigating traffic and finding parking will take time.

By TOM ZUCCO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Phil Oropesa pushed back from the maps piled on his desk like someone who had stayed up all night cramming for a geography exam. It could, he said, get a little dicey. Especially on Friday.

If a lot of tickets are sold to this weekend's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and if a large number of the people who got free tickets to Friday's qualifying use them, finding a place to park downtown will require planning, an early start and, most of all, patience.

"The only people going fast this weekend will be the race car drivers," Oropesa said. "My advice is to leave early and be patient. Parking will be at a premium. Expect to walk. And wear comfortable shoes."

Oropesa is the city's parking manager, one of the people who for the past three months has planned which streets to close, which to restrict, and how to best funnel traffic into the city.

The plan is in place, and it starts today.

Small sections of several streets will be closed along the waterfront course, which runs from the eastern end of Central Avenue to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus. Specifically, the eastern ends of Fourth, Fifth and First avenues S will be closed to traffic, along with a block of Beach Drive NE and a block of Central Avenue.

"By Wednesday night," Oropesa said, "the entire course will be buttoned up."

Where will people park? The city has about 5,000 off-street parking spaces available (parking garages and lots) and another 1,000 on-street spaces. Some parking on the streets is free; some has a time limit. "The police will be enforcing the law," Oropesa said, "so people need to read the signs."

Parking in city lots is $5. More than 100 handicapped parking spots are available at the South Core parking garage and at USF St. Petersburg, and city residents who live in areas where the streets are closed will be allowed access.

There are also several thousand private lots, which typically charge up to $20 for an event like the Grand Prix.

For Sunday's main event, organizers will operate a shuttle service from Tropicana Field to the race site. The shuttle is free, but there will be a charge to park at the stadium.

"There are about 7,000 spaces available there," Oropesa said. "So it should take a lot of pressure off downtown."

Another key element in making sure traffic runs smoothly are the portable message boards that will be installed on Interstate 275 and on other key roads. They will direct people to available parking, Oropesa said, and be updated as lots fill.

There are, of course, other ways to get to the race. A stretch of Bayshore Drive NE next to Straub Park will be open to motorcycle parking, and a bicycle rack will be available next to the main entrance.

"But you can't bring a boat and anchor it in Demens Landing to watch the race," Oropesa said. "And you can't stand along the fence or watch from a roof. And we don't have parking for RVs.

"But if you work this right, you can get in and out of the city this weekend without a problem. And that's what we want."

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