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    Smoothing spring break traffic

    Despite steps to speed things up, 50,000 cars a day and just 1,700 parking spots are bound to create slow going at Clearwater Beach.

    [Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
    In a traffic jam Saturday night at the Clearwater Beach roundabout, some drivers bump up onto the median to let an emergency vehicle pass.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- An iron line of cars snakes across Memorial Causeway, a sign that the tourist-snowbird season has begun and spring break looms.

    That line will grow day by day. It has every spring since Clearwater Beach became a tourist destination. It will reach into downtown Clearwater and perhaps farther during sunny days during the next six weeks.

    Police and city traffic officials have plans to alleviate traffic problems from spring breaks past.

    For instance, police aides will be assigned to Mandalay Avenue north of the roundabout to prevent pedestrians from darting into traffic, which slows the flow.

    More aides will be assigned to the parking lot at Pier 60 to tell motorists when the lot is filled. That way, drivers don't idle there waiting to see whether a spot is open, said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor.

    Meanwhile, traffic officials say they have a better mastery of the roundabout, which suffered some public scrutiny after its premiere spring break last year.

    This year, traffic signals in the area are better synchronized, there are more signs telling motorists what lane they need to get in and there now is striping in the roundabout circle itself, said Mahshid Arasteh, the city's public works administrator.

    There even will be electronic message boards on Memorial Causeway to tell drivers what lane to get in, and on Sand Key to alert motorists of traffic snags.

    There was a lot of talk after last year's spring break about the roundabout, and a committee assigned to investigate potential improvements has met 15 times since September. The committee isn't expected to make recommendations until after the March city elections, and any changes the group would recommend wouldn't take place until after spring break ends in April.

    But city police and traffic officials say the roundabout is an improvement over the series of intersections that existed in its place before. They say the roundabout helps keep traffic moving -- albeit slowly -- instead of halting it completely every few minutes while traffic signals change.

    "The roundabout's biggest liability is its reputation," Shelor said.

    Though there were complaints last year, Arasteh said traffic backed up into Clearwater to Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Missouri Avenue. That's a long line of cars, but in past years, that line has stretched even father -- as far as Arcturas Avenue, she said.

    "It makes it better," Shelor said of the roundabout. "It is a better system than the system of intersections it replaced."

    This year, a metering signal at the roundabout entrance has been better synchronized. In addition, that signal will flash to a red light if the roundabout gets clogged.

    "It helps pace the traffic very well," Arasteh said.

    Still, officials say traffic is going to be slow. That's what happens when you stuff 50,000 cars per day on an island with only 1,700 parking spots, no matter what the road features.

    "There's no room," Shelor said. "Put an interstate cloverleaf there, where are you going to put the cars?"

    Arasteh said last year an average of 54,000 cars went through the roundabout per day during spring break, about 14,000 more than on a normal day. There also were 5,000 pedestrians in the area each day, she said.

    Because of budget cuts, there won't be as much police manpower on the beach through spring break. For instance, the number of police aides that can help on the beach dropped from 28 to 16 because of budget cuts; only six of those will be available full time to help with beach traffic, Shelor said.

    "If we're doing anything different, we're doing less," he said.

    There also will be no police officers directing traffic in the roundabout itself as there were last year.

    Though there were more accidents at the roundabout during spring break last year, police are hoping people will be better informed about the roundabout this year and will pay attention to the signs.

    A ferry and bus service used during spring break last year won't be provided this year, because not many people used it.

    But city officials say there are ways people can help unclog the island. Take a bike onto the beach if you can, and get there before 11 a.m. Or head to the beach on Sand Key, accessing it from the Belleair Causeway from the south rather than from busy Clearwater Beach.

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