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    City tries to steer roundabout to safety

    Small tweaks, such as traffic-funneling "candlesticks,'' may solve many of the traffic circle's problems, officials say.

    By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- After debating how to improve the accident-prone Clearwater Beach roundabout all year, city officials are hopeful that a cheap solution may help them avoid an expensive overhaul of the notorious oval roadway.

    The overhaul, recommended to the city by an expert early this summer, would cost more than $1.2-million to implement, according to new estimates released Monday after months of delays tabulating the possible cost.

    But before the city proceeds with big-ticket changes, Clearwater officials and a committee of residents that has been reviewing the roundabout have decided to install guideposts, called "candlesticks," to try to reduce wrecks.

    The posts will be installed by week's end at the intersection of Coronado Drive, the roundabout's most wreck-prone point, angling into the outer lane of the roundabout. They can be removed immediately if they cause confusion or traffic backups.

    The project will cost less than $1,000, said Mahshid Arasteh, the city's public works administrator.

    The posts should force drivers entering the roundabout's outer lane from Mandalay Avenue to turn quickly out of the roundabout onto Coronado and head to the beach, city officials say.

    That could eliminate confusion at the intersection, caused when drivers in the outside lane are trying to circle the roundabout -- while drivers in the inside lane are trying to turn across their path and exit.

    "If we go with our independent (expert) opinion, he feels more changes need to be implemented," said Arasteh, the city's top engineer.

    "But if we try what we're trying, and it shows there are other solutions that are safe, and the citizens' input comes back from the committee that this is okay, we'll take all that into account as we decide what to do next."

    A similar installation of candlesticks at the roundabout's Memorial Causeway exit has helped reduce accidents there, said Clearwater police Lt. John Slack.

    "It gives drivers a little more warning that if they're in that (outer) lane, they have to turn," said Slack, who manages officers who patrol the beach area. "Little changes like that may reap big results if they're done right. We're hoping."

    By comparison, the overhaul would include reconstructing the roundabout's intersections to allow cars to make wider turns and also make the desired flow of traffic more obvious to drivers.

    The $1.2-million reconstruction estimate doesn't include some possible costs, like reducing the height of the fountain in the roundabout's center.

    Officials say that if the city followed through on every possible change, it would add several hundred thousand dollars more to the costs.

    "That's a heck of a nut to bite, with the city having to foot the bill for the whole thing," said Commissioner Ed Hart, who has been closely involved in the issue. He noted that the city has only $978,000 left in its $10-million budget for the roundabout to cover renovations.

    City commissioners first told city staff members in March to start working on a solution to complaints about the roundabout that were pouring into City Hall.

    Interim City Manager Bill Horne said officials put off addressing the issue because they were focused on a downtown redevelopment plan this summer, although some minor changes were made, mostly by adding signs. Also, city administrators wanted to see whether the accident rate would fall as people got used to driving the roundabout.

    Horne and others say that the roundabout's accident rate has dropped, with only 14 serious accidents requiring written police reports from June to August -- far fewer than in previous months.

    Hart suggests, however, that traffic through the roundabout also has been lighter during the summer.

    Letters complaining about the circle also are not as frequent at City Hall. However, there was one recent complaint from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority that the roundabout's lanes are too narrow and its turns too sharp to allow buses to safely navigate it.

    "For some people, perception is reality, and the committee and city are sensitive to that," Horne said. He said city officials may continue discussing possible changes for several more months.

    The city may decide to avoid extensive changes until after next year's spring break, Horne said. The city doesn't want the roundabout to be under construction during the peak traffic season, Arasteh said.

    The committee of residents studying the issue hopes to bring back recommendations to the commission by year's end, said Hart, who leads the group's meetings.

    Roundabout accidents

    The following shows the number of reported accidents at the Clearwater Beach roundabout from Jan. 1 to Sept. 18, 2000, according to Clearwater police records.

    January 33

    February 45

    March 61

    April 58

    May 47

    June 32

    July 22

    August 22

    Sept.* 3

    Total: 323

    *through Sept. 18

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