tampabay.com

Road closure leads to heavy a.m. traffic

By JACOB H. FRIES AND CASEY CORA
Published May 29, 2007


The first morning of workday commuting dawned Tuesday with heavy traffic on U.S. 19 and other detour routes while McMullen-Booth Road was closed for three weeks of repairs.

As of 7:10 a.m., traffic generally was moving smoothly throughout North Pinellas, though cars were beginning to back up on Bayshore Boulevard in Safety Harbor, near Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater, and on U.S. 19, a primary detour road for commuters.

"We knew Bayshore would be one of the areas we'd have to keep our eye on, " said Mahshid Arasteh, Pinellas County's public works transportation director.

County transportation officials monitored the commute with staff in the field and a helicopter. Arasteh was in the county's traffic control center so she could alter traffic signals times remotely as backups developed.

"The true test is today and the evening rush hour so we're monitoring it carefully, " Arasteh said.

Officials closed McMullen-Booth entirely Friday night at the CSX railroad crossing. The road, which carries an average of 70, 000 vehicles a day, is expected to remain closed for three weeks at that spot while the railroad crossing is replaced. Through traffic is being detoured onto State Road 580, U.S. 19 and Drew Street.

Did the detours work?
Before the closure, on Friday morning, it took a Times reporter 18 minutes to get from Curlew Road to Ulmerton Road using McMullen-Booth.

During morning rush hour Tuesday, the reporter used the prescribed detour and took 25 minutes to complete the trip. On U.S. 19 traffic was bumper-to-bumper and stopped completely at times. Congestion on other parts of the detour was slight. 

From a helicopter, a Times photographer observed that many southbound commuters did not appear to be using SR 580, as recommended, to cut over to U.S. 19 Tuesday morning. Instead, many were going further south and turning at State Road 590 or taking other routes.

As new traffic patterns began to emerge over the weekend, officials made some adjustments to their plan. They added message boards warning of the closure because many motorists apparently missed the signs and upon reaching the rail crossing had to make U-turns. They also lengthened the signal times at key intersections.

But overall, officials said, Friday's closure was smooth and they believed many motorists had already chosen alternative routes before Tuesday's commute.

"We had complaints over the weekend, but nothing this morning, " Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said. "It's largely been business as usual."

As the sun rose, traffic picked up on U.S. 19, which already is used by an average of about 70, 000 cars and trucks a day.

The scene on U.S. 19 was a stark contrast to the intersection of McMullen-Booth Road and SR 590, just north of the closure, where one Pinellas County sheriff's deputy sitting in his cruiser said he was waiting to see how many motorists forgot about the scheduled repairs.

Any other day, the Hess Gas station at that intersection's southeast corner bustles with the coffee-and-doughnut crowd, said clerk Melissa McLaughlin. But early Tuesday, customers were a rarity.

McLaughlin, who has worked at the station for 10 years, said the business was about half of what it normally is. And it didn't look to get any better for the mid-day and evening foot traffic.

"We're missing all that, " McLaughlin said.

Filling up a Billings Pumping tanker truck, Jeremy Jordan, 25, said he travels McMullen-Booth everyday for his route. The closure will prove a considerable expense in drive time.

Since Friday, Jordan said he's traveled around the closure using various detours and racking up a $125 fuel bill in the process.

"I get paid for it, " he said. "But my boss isn't happy."

Times photographer Jim Damaske contributed to this report. Jacob H. Fries can be reached at jfries@sptimes.com.