Slow things down on Belcher's new stretch

A Times Editorial
Published August 31, 2007

With the opening Tuesday of a 2-mile segment, Pinellas County is taking justifiable pride in the completion of Belcher Road all the way to the southern limit of Tarpon Springs.

Extending Belcher Road, which used to end in Dunedin, took many years and brought much angst to residents whose neighborhoods were bisected. However, the result is a positive for all county motorists: a smooth, four-lane ribbon of asphalt that now provides a true alternative to U.S. 19 and Alt. U.S. 19 from the northern boundary of St. Petersburg through North Pinellas.

The county estimates that about 20,000 vehicles a day will use the road and that the number will climb to 34,000 by 2025. Belcher Road is not a limited-access road as U.S. 19 eventually will be, so motorists wanting to drive at highway speeds likely will choose U.S. 19 once overpass projects have been completed. But that is many years off, and meanwhile, the trip up Belcher Road is pleasant and less congested.

The segment that opened this week was from Alderman Road in Palm Harbor to Klosterman Road in Tarpon Springs. Belcher emerges practically at the back door of the St. Petersburg College campus, leaving school faculty and the staff of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art there to celebrate their new visibility and easy access from both U.S. 19 and Belcher Road.

Another school with increased visibility since the new segment opened is Sutherland Elementary School, but neither parents nor faculty are celebrating. They are worried about the safety of Sutherland students.

Until the new Belcher segment opened, the school experienced no fast through-traffic. Located just north of the Alderman-Belcher intersection, the school faced a dead-end spur of Belcher and was safely accessed by students walking or riding their bikes.

Since Tuesday's opening, the school faces four through-lanes of Belcher Road. It is busier, and traffic will only build on the road as motorists discover it and the area grows. Parents and school officials were upset when the speed limit was posted as 45 mph and no school zone was created to slow down drivers. Instead, a traffic light was put up at a pedestrian crossing in front of the school - a light that turns red only when a crossing guard or pedestrian pushes the crossing button. That is typical for other schools located along Belcher Road and other major thoroughfares.

For many parents, that isn't good enough. They see sidewalks lined with students, and a car, more likely driving 55 mph than the posted 45 mph, careening off the road. Parents also have noted that Belcher curves near the school, limiting motorists' visibility of the school until they are upon it.

Transportation officials consider it important to keep traffic moving on clogged Pinellas roads. Lowering the speed limit slows traffic. Officials also point out that no students have been hit at the current speed limit.

Let's not wait for that to happen. The speed limits on roads must be set according to what is safe, not what is expedient or customary. A 45 mph speed limit, which will be exceeded by most motorists, may very well be too fast in front of schools, especially elementary schools, where children are often oblivious to the hazards around them and traffic tends to back up into roadways at drop-off and pick-up times.

Nothing should trump safety. School and traffic officials should consider lowering the speed limits in front of Sutherland and other elementary schools on major roadways in busy North Pinellas.