tampabay.com

Major detour goes smoothly

By JACOB H. FRIES and CASEY CORA
Published May 30, 2007


The predictions had been just short of apocalyptic.

Closing down part of McMullen-Booth Road, motorists warned, would snarl the commute and transform U.S. 19 into an nightmare of exhaust, stalled cars and fuming drivers.

On Tuesday, as the first workday commute of the McMullen-Booth reconstruction project came and went, traffic slowed.

A bit.

But the end of civilization remained comfortably far off.

Phew!

"It went very well," said Mahshid Arasteh, Pinellas County's public works transportation director. "All in all, the commuters took our advice and chose an alternate route ahead of time."

As expected, traffic bottlenecked in places during the height of the morning commute. The worst two were Bayshore Boulevard in Safety Harbor and U.S. 19, part of the county's suggested detour route. Surrounding roads, however, never bogged down.

Congestion was light enough that Arasteh wondered whether people had taken the day off to extend the weekend.

"We will be monitoring tomorrow morning very closely and the next day to make sure we see the same commute pattern," she said.

Officials closed McMullen-Booth entirely Friday night at the CSX railroad crossing, just south of State Road 590. 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 detour 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 briefly at times, but traffic on other parts of the detour was slight.

That was the consistent with the feedback the county received from its construction hotline, 727 453-3320, which didn't really heat up. Only two people called, and both reported delays of 10 minutes or less, Arasteh said.

It also was consistent with the view from the air.

A Times photographer in a helicopter observed that many southbound commuters did not appear to be using SR 580, as recommended, to cut over to U.S. 19. Instead, many went further south and turned at SR 590 and others, coming from the Palm Harbor area, used Curlew Road to reach U.S. 19.

In Safety Harbor, those driving Bayshore tended to bypass Drew for Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard before turning onto the Bayside Bridge. In response, the county planned to post signs suggesting the use of Drew, which had less-than-usual traffic Tuesday morning. Arasteh also said Keene and Belcher roads were good north-south alternatives.

County officials already had made some adjustments as new traffic patterns began to emerge over the weekend. 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.

As the sun rose Tuesday and traffic picked up on U.S. 19, the intersection of McMullen-Booth and SR 590 remained quiet.

Any other morning, the Hess gas station on the southeastern corner would have bustled with the coffee-and-doughnut crowd, said clerk Melissa McLaughlin. But early Tuesday, customers were scarce.

McLaughlin 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 every day for his route.

Since Friday, Jordan said he used various detours and racked up a $125 fuel bill in the process.

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

Staff photographer Jim Damaske contributed to this report. Jacob H. Fries can be reached at jfries@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4156.

On the web

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