tampabay.com

Detour from routine means headaches

A stretch of McMullen-Booth Road that is closed for three weeks is upsetting drivers' lives.

By JACOB H. FRIES
Published May 27, 2007


Roads take us places, to work, to Grandma's house, to the supermarket. Like a cup of coffee, they become part of our daily routine.

And when we lose one, even temporarily, we feel it. Our routine gets off-kilter, like when we miss our morning coffee or sleep through the alarm.

For tens of thousands of people in North Pinellas, the loss of McMullen-Booth Road for the next three weeks will cause headaches big and small. Motorists will consult maps. Parents will start their days earlier. Commuters will arrive late.

All because McMullen-Booth is closed to through traffic between Drew Street and State Road 580, and all because the CSX railroad crossing needs repairs.

Bill Mulhern, 65 and semi-retired, gets fired up just talking about the road closure. He says it will cripple his commute from Clearwater to Pinellas Park, where he works part-time at Kane's Furniture. He says it shouldn't take so long to fix the railroad crossing.

"It just doesn't make any sense at all," he said. "It's going to be a real mess. There's going to be pain, but why stretch the pain out over three weeks? Can't you do it in a week?"

No way, officials say.

The job is too complex. CSX has to remove old rails, elevate the rail's grade and then replace a 220-foot rail section. Afterward, the county will work around the clock to complete the crossing, adding concrete panels adjacent to the rails and finishing the roadway.

Skeptical, Mulhern called the county's hotline, 727 453-3320. Then he started "playing with numbers," calculating the extra gas motorists will burn traveling around the closed section of McMullen-Booth, which is typically used by 70,000 cars a day.

Mulhern's estimate: $1.5-million to $2-million in extra gas during the three-week period.

Gregg Brown's bottom line is already suffering. In February, he opened Hershey's Ice Cream shop in the Bayside Bridge Plaza, just north of the railroad crossing. Then came the cold weather, then smoke from Georgia wildfires, then this.

"I hate to sound like I'm whining," Brown said. "But it's almost kind of unfair. We just can't catch a break."

Cars can reach businesses all the way up to the tracks, but Brown said his customer traffic has slowed ever since road signs warned of the coming closure.

"We understand things have to be done," Brown said. "The road has to be done, but it's just ... I'm just flabbergasted. This is going to hurt us horribly."

Nancy McKibben has heard all the stories. A project manager for the county, she has returned hundreds of phone messages left on the county's hot line. (About 4,500 calls were placed to the number, though only 400 people left messages asking for more information.)

Most people just wanted help figuring out a new route. Some called for an explanation. Others needed to vent.

"Usually the people who have an issue are calling on a cell phone, while in traffic and are already frustrated and expect to be more frustrated with the closure," McKibben said.

But, she added, callers quickly calmed down once they understood the necessity of the repairs.

"You can just sense in their voice they're no longer angry," she said. "By the end, usually, they are thanking me for calling them."

This is what McKibben tells everyone: To go south, take State Road 580 west to U.S. 19, go south to Drew Street and take Drew east back to McMullen-Booth. Or just reverse that path if you need to go north.

As it turns out, roads, like life, can sometimes benefit from a good detour.

Jacob H. Fries can be reached at 445-4156 or jfries@sptimes.com.