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    A Times Editorial

    Help for roundabout overdue

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 8, 2001

    A citizens committee appointed to recommend possibles fixes for the accident-prone Clearwater Beach roundabout went round and round on the subject for nine months and came out . . .

    . . . befuddled.

    Many who have driven the roundabout would identify with that feeling.

    Even before the committee was appointed by the City Commission last fall, others had looked at the roundabout's shortcomings and the cost of potential improvements and had reached the same conclusion contained in the committee's final report: "The roundabout has proved to be a very complex intersection with no simple solutions or easy fixes."

    The committee, led by City Commissioner Ed Hart, couldn't agree on solutions to recommend to the City Commission. A lot of possible improvements were explored, including wider lanes, a larger circumference and removing the tall fountain in the middle of the traffic circle. But the committee discarded one after another, either because there was no proof they would work or they were too expensive.

    After a lot of what the final report calls "lively debate," the committee did make a few suggestions to the City Commission. First, it rejected a package of fixes proposed by British roundabout expert Barry Crown because, at a cost of $1.5-million, the package was considered too expensive by committee members.

    Second, the committee said the city should implement a few minor changes Crown suggested, mostly improvements to the alignment of the Mandalay Avenue and Coronado Avenue exits, at a cost of about $300,000.

    And third, the committee said the city should delay improvements to the roundabout until major redevelopment projects on the island have been implemented and their impact on the roundabout evaluated.

    The result of this nine-month exercise is that the City Commission is right back where it started: with one heck of a problem on its hands and no saviors in sight.

    Here are a few ideas for the City Commission to consider as it grapples with this issue.

    First, the commission must -- must -- seek traffic engineering solutions, not political solutions, as it considers what to do about the roundabout. Handing the problem to a citizen committee for recommendations was a feel-good political solution. Meanwhile, accidents continued in the roundabout. There have been 428 accidents since Dec. 15, 1999, and many more near-wrecks. Some people who have heard about the roundabout are so intimidated that they have stopped going to Clearwater Beach.

    The City Commission needs the advice of smart, experienced people in the field of traffic engineering. Barry Crown can be one of those, but should be only one. Remember, the roundabout is a complex intersection with no easy solutions. The city has a staff of public works and traffic engineering specialists who should be given the time to team up and reach recommendations of their own. Has the City Commission considered bringing in some traffic engineers from other communities to add their 2 cents' worth to the issue? City commissioners need the opinions of all the best minds they can get.

    Should the fountain in the middle of the roundabout stay or go? The citizens committee couldn't decide. Barry Crown has an opinion: The fountain walls block drivers' view and should be lower. Most people agree that the roundabout would be easier and safer to drive without the tall fountain blocking lines of sight. But what stops them from advocating its removal is that it cost a lot to build, and besides, it is darned pretty.

    Sentiment should not be a factor in this decision. The fountain wasn't supposed to be built in the first place -- the publicly approved design had a low reflecting pool with sculptures. The fountain looks impressive but wastes water, sprinkles drivers' windshields while they are trying to navigate the circle, and has had a host of expensive maintenance problems. Worst of all, it is a city-constructed traffic hazard. It needs to be lower or it needs to be gone.

    And what about the committee's suggestion that the city delay improvements to the roundabout until redevelopment projects on the beach have been completed? The polar ice caps might melt, raise the level of the oceans and cover Clearwater Beach before those projects are accomplished if the current pace is any indication.

    Meanwhile, a new high-level bridge will be built on Memorial Causeway in two years, sending traffic hurtling even faster toward the beach roundabout.

    For the traveling public's safety and welfare, the roundabout must be improved, and it may cost a lot of money. And that's just the way it is.

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