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    Critical crossroads

    Numerous wrecks. One death. The tragedies could have been avoided if two Seminole locations had stoplights, some residents say.

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001


    SEMINOLE -- One place is dangerous because motorists often are surprised by cars coming out of nowhere. It's where two lanes merge into one and speeding vehicles jockey for position in a crowded intersection.

    And it's where Adeline Openlander lost her life in January.

    The other place puts anxious motorists in jeopardy as they attempt a left turn onto busy Park Boulevard, where cars often whiz by at 45 mph. It's where seven serious accidents happened in the past year.

    And it's where Mamie Gustafson was in such a severe wreck that five months later she still wears a neck brace.

    Congested roads are everywhere in Pinellas County -- and the results can be deadly. But the families of these two victims are trying to change things. About 30 residents, including Mrs. Openlander's son, showed up at a recent public hearing in Seminole to talk about the intersection of 102nd Avenue and Old Ridge Road. Most of them urged city officials to install a stoplight there.

    But although most talked about speed limits and flashing lights, Skip Bailey talked about his family. Mrs. Openlander was Bailey's mother, an independent, vital 75-year-old woman. While returning home from dropping off a stray cat at the county's animal shelter, she was broadsided as she entered the intersection.

    "She was a happy lady, and she had more friends than you can imagine," said Bailey, 55. "A friend of hers was a friend for life."

    Although Bailey is just learning how local government works, Sandy Holloway could be called a community activist. She helped stop the widening of Old Oakhurst Road and the building of a drugstore near a Seminole neighborhood.

    Both have similar stories. The loved ones of both were in horrible traffic accidents. Mrs. Holloway's mother is Mamie Gustafson, an 88-year-old who never saw the car coming as she exited the Home Depot parking lot on Park Boulevard in Seminole. She too was broadsided. Her injuries, including a broken neck, kept her in a hospital for four months.

    Mrs. Holloway attended a county meeting last week to ask officials to do something about the store's entrance and exit on Park Boulevard. A traffic light could prevent more accidents, she told them.

    Like Mrs. Openlander, Mrs. Gustafson was independent. She enjoyed cooking and gardening. But that life is gone for now.

    "It's taken all of her independence from her," Mrs. Holloway said of the accident. "She's totally dependent on all of us around her."

    Bailey and his wife, Lynn, never gave much thought to the intersection of 102nd Avenue and Old Ridge Road, even when their daughter was in a serious accident there Dec. 1.

    Melony Krusinski of Largo, 24, attempted to cross the intersection when she was struck by a car heading east on 102nd Avenue. Emergency workers had to cut her out of her car, but she had no injuries.

    Two months later, Bailey's mother, Sunnie, died at the same spot where his daughter had been hit. That's whenBailey and his wife began to question the intersection.

    "The idea of an intersection that is not that heavily traveled having two accidents involving two members of the same family. . . . There's something wrong with that intersection," said Bailey, who lives near Seminole.

    Though Bailey says that although his mother probably was at fault, he still thinks something should be done to improve the intersection, especially with a new subdivision going up at the northwest corner of the intersection.

    Bailey and his wife were relieved when they heard last month that the county was going to make the improvements. There had been too many accidents at the site.

    The county had a plan: Drivers heading north or south on Old Ridge Road wouldn't be able to make left turns onto 102nd Avenue. They wouldn't even be allowed to cross 102nd Avenue.

    And pavement markings and posts would prevent motorists heading west on 102nd from using a right-hand turn lane as a normal lane of traffic. Now, when westbound vehicles approach the intersection in the right-hand turn lane, many of them abruptly change into the left lane, jamming traffic.

    All the county needed was the city's permission to make the changes, because most of the intersection was in Seminole.

    But days after the county proposed its plan, officials reversed the decision, saying it was Seminole's responsibility to improve the intersection. Now attorneys from both sides have been brought into the issue.

    Seminole City Manager Frank Edmunds said the city is willing to pay its share for improvements, but it shouldn't be responsible for the entire job because 102nd Avenue is a county road.

    Meanwhile, the Baileys and others wait for changes. "I don't have an answer to their politics," Bailey said.

    But he won't give up, either.

    He makes phone calls to Edmunds, whom Bailey says is doing the best he can, and plans to attend any possible future public meetings on the issue.

    "This family will never recover from this," said Mrs. Bailey, 45. "You cope. You survive. But this family will never recover from this."

    Mrs. Holloway knew the Home Depot at 10550 Park Blvd. would bring more traffic to an already-congested area. The store replaced an oak-filled campsite.

    "I was upset as most people were," she said. "It was somewhat upsetting to hear that this was thought of as progress."

    Holloway, 58, said she didn't do anything to stop the progress. No coalitions. No grass-roots organizations.

    And her mother wondered why. "She said, "Well, Sandra, can't you just do something about that?' " Mrs. Holloway recalled.

    But the store was built and life went on. Then Oct. 16 came and Mrs. Gustafson drove to Home Depot to look at plants.

    She bought one and left the store. As she attempted to turn left into a median opening on Park Boulevard, she was struck by avehicle heading east on Park.

    Mrs. Gustafson's neck, pelvis, jaw and ribs were broken. She must wear a neck brace 24 hours a day until she heals.

    Mrs. Holloway says her mother made a mistake. But the real mistake was made when the store opened with such a dangerous entrance and exit, she said.

    When government allows redevelopment, it needs to make sure the roads can safely handle the additional traffic, Mrs. Holloway said. And the community needs to make sure that happens, she said, even if only one person speaks up.

    "But if there is enough people who care, things can happen," she said. "Too often we say it will be business as usual and no one will pay attention, but change can happen."

    Mrs. Holloway says a stoplight is needed at the store entrance, even though there already is a traffic signal 1,200 feet away. "I'm not a transportation expert, but there has to be something done so there is not that jockeying for position in the median," she said. "It's a hair-raising experience."

    Home Depot agrees that a signal light is needed. The city required the home improvement store to do a traffic analysis before it opened. The report called for a light at the store entrance.

    The county's Public Works Department recommended a light be installed. But the adjacent light at the intersection of Park and Seminole boulevards is one of the reasons the Metropolitan Planning Organization's traffic signal committee delayed its opinion on the proposed light.

    Doug Mullis, the committee's vice chairman, said it would be difficult to synchronize the lights and another signal may cause more headaches.

    "But there is an accident problem out there," Mullis said. "Seven (accidents) in a year is substantial. But I know we'll work it out."

    - Staff writer Maureen Byrne can be reached at 445-4163 or at byrne@sptimes.com.

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