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Detour: Road closed ahead

That's what motorists will face on McMullen-Booth Road.

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published May 20, 2007


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North Pinellas commuters, brace yourselves. Your daily trip is about to get a lot more harried.

After the evening rush hour Friday, one of the area's major north-south arteries - McMullen-Booth Road - will be closed to through traffic between Drew Street and State Road 580 for up to three weeks to allow for a railroad repair.

The point of closure, 720 feet right at the CSX railroad tracks, is quite small. But, unfortunately, the disruption is expected to be huge for the 70, 000 drivers who pass the point daily and for drivers on other major north-south arteries who will have to deal with detour traffic, particularly along already-congested U.S. 19.

Access will remain, via local traffic, to businesses along the thoroughfare, though no cars will be allowed to cross the tracks.

Just the anticipation of the next three weeks is already causing headaches for one landlord, who has been trying to lease a vacant space.

When potential renters find out about the road closure, they move on, said Mike Dabiri, owner of the Shoppes at Savoy, "I'm losing potential tenants." Dabiri said he understands the railroad tracks must be repaired, "but with this economy, we cannot go through 20 days of lack of traffic."

County officials offer only one bit of solace. With winter tourists out of town and school out, traffic is lighter now than any other time of the year. The work will start just hours after the last public school graduation at Ruth Eckerd Hall. And that's why the work, scheduled but canceled several times since 2002, is finally happening now. Work crews will work 24 hours a day with an anticipated finish date of June 14.

"CSX can't wait any longer because of the safety of cars and trains, " said Pinellas County's director of transportation Mahshid Arasteh, who commutes daily on the road as well. She's planning to allow 10-15 minutes to get from her Safety Harbor home to work in Clearwater.

The official detour the county proposes for McMullen-Booth users traveling southbound: Take State Road 580 west to U.S. 19 south, exit at Drew Street and travel east back to McMullen-Booth. Northbound travelers can take Drew Street west to U.S. 19 north, then take SR 580 east back on McMullen-Booth.

Other alternative north-south routes are Belcher Road and Keene Road.

* * *

Twice a day, a train chugs across McMullen-Booth Road carrying freight. Railroad tracks have been at that location for so long, they predate local cities and the thoroughfare.

But the intersection with McMullen-Booth Road has degraded over the years. The rails have settled, the rubber aprons between the roadway and rails have broken down. In the past five years, in fact, the crossing has been closed sporadically for emergency repairs.

The new crossing will be made of reinforced concrete panels which have a 20-year life span. The material closest to the rail will be hard rubber. Those costs, paid for mostly by Penny for Pinellas sales tax income, are estimated at $490, 000.

CSX will cover the cost, $270, 000, of elevating the rail's grade more than four inches and replacing the 220-foot section of rail.

Freight train traffic will continue throughout the repairs.

The new materials will "make for a very smooth ride for motorists traveling over the tracks, " said Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman.

A similar project, also expected to cause significant traffic headaches for commuters, is set to begin mid-summer at Bryan Dairy Road.

* * *

The county has been preparing for months for the disruption, including distributing fliers at the Publix and Walgreens just north of the railroad and at Ruth Eckerd Hall, south of the railroad; to 10, 000 utility customers in their utility bills; and mailing information directly to 1, 000 households.

This month the county erected electronic signs along the roadway announcing the closure and giving a hotline number to call. Nearly 200 motorists have dialed in.

But none of that makes the prospect of the next three weeks any easier.

Staff at Ruth Eckerd Hall have been telling customers for weeks about the closure. But Robert Freedman, the hall's president and chief executive, worries about those planning to attend a big show, such as Jazz Attack 2007 on June 9 or Asia and Alan Parson Project on June 14. And then there are parents who are bringing kids to summer classes at Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute.

"We've never had a road closure like this, " said Freedman. "It's a real uncertainty for us."

Kevin O'Neill, manager of Sam Ash Music Store just south of the tracks, said initially "everyone panicked a little bit, " when they heard about the road closure. But the company has a specialty clientele made up of motivated buyers, not drive-by customers who drop in to buy a $2, 000 guitar.

"I think they'll find us, " O'Neill said.

And some commuters aren't letting official detour plans set the agenda.

Business and life partners Rick Zacchigna and Jeff Barrett, who own Saxony Homes, drive McMullen-Booth Road north every day to get from their Clearwater home south of the tracks to a property they're developing in Safety Harbor.

Instead of taking the official detour route on U.S. 19, Zacchigna said they'll take scenic Bayshore Boulevard to Safety Harbor.

Safety Harbor is already bracing for such an influx. Mayor Andy Steingold fears Bayshore, along with Main Street and Philippe Parkway, will soon be swamped with cut-through traffic.

"Fortunately, it will only be a temporary inconvenience, " he said. "I'm glad it's only for three weeks."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.

Find out the latest

To find out more about the McMullen-Booth Road closure, call the hotline at (727) 453-3320 or visit www.pinellas county.org/roadwork.htm

[Last modified May 19, 2007, 18:55:03]


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