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    Political gridlock on traffic unjams

    With a bit of yielding on both sides, the county and cities resume work on coordinating traffic signals. The county envisions a central control center to synchronize the lights.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 22, 2003

    For weeks, the goal of fixing the county's patchwork system of traffic signals seemed to be stalling.

    Pinellas County officials were pushing for control of traffic signals operated by Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Those two municipalities were not thrilled about the idea, and a public dispute ensued.

    But after negotiations involving the staff of both cities and the county, the effort is moving forward again. The cities have agreed in principle to the idea of giving up control of some of their traffic signals. The turnover would be done in phases.

    The elected leaders of both cities and the county would have to approve a still to be written formal agreement. But the encouraging thing for officials is that the effort is no longer stalled.

    "We are all compromising," said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel.

    In February, the proposal was bogged down by a political fight between the officials of both cities and the county. Pinellas officials said the cities were dragging their heels. The cities didn't like the county's tough stance.

    At a county meeting earlier this week, Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt announced that "the cities have basically agreed to allow the county to assume control" over the traffic signals on U.S. 19, McMullen Booth Road, Ulmerton Road and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

    Those are the roads that would be in the first phase. If all goes well, then the cities would look to turn over more roads in the second phase. There are four phases.

    "If phase one goes well, then we turn over the signals for phase two," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. "If phase two goes well, then we turn over the signals for phase three."

    Clearwater wants to do it in phases so that city officials "are absolutely convinced that it can be done and done well," Horne said.

    While it's not exactly what the county was looking for, it'll do, county officials said.

    "We are certainly receptive to that approach as opposed to the comprehensive approach that was talked about earlier," Spratt said.

    The next steps are to draft the agreement and find a way to pay for the turnover, Spratt said. One idea that has been brought up by county officials is raising the gas tax by 1 cent per gallon.

    "If we can put in a more intelligent traffic system that causes less congestion and manages accidents better, then that may be a prudent use use of the gas tax," Seel said.

    The county envisions a central control center where traffic signals could be operated and synchronized. Unifying the three systems would eliminate traffic backups that occur near city boundaries where lights are out of synch, county officials say.

    "It's abundantly clear, in my opinion, that when you are driving you can tell when the lights change into different jurisdictions," Seel said.

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