CLEARWATER — Way back in February, CSX Railroad started tearing up a street in downtown Clearwater to replace rotten wooden railroad ties beneath the pavement.
For weeks, railroad work crews made their way south along East Avenue, past the downtown post office and the police station.
By late May, they reached Court Street, the location of a bicycle shop owned by recent Clearwater City Council candidate Mike Riordon.
And then the work virtually stopped. Workers showed up for a few hours a few days a week, or they disappeared for a week at a time.
Half a year after the repair job started, five blocks of East Avenue are still torn up. Weeds are sprouting in the street where pavement used to be.
Riordon says CSX blames the city for the delay. The city blames the railroad.
"When you talk to both parties, they point the finger at each other," Riordon says. "CSX has worked a lot slower than they could have. They've been out in front of me for four months, easy. The railroad tracks are an eyesore. My profit margins this summer are down compared to the last three summers."
Will the work ever be done?
CSX isn't talking. Questions to CSX were referred to a spokesman. The spokesman did not return repeated phone calls from the St. Petersburg Times over a two-week period.
Meanwhile, Clearwater officials have been trying to pressure the railroad into finishing the job.
In late August, Mayor Frank Hibbard called out CSX at a regional transportation meeting, complaining that the stalled railroad work has left part of downtown Clearwater in shreds.
"The way they have treated us is inexcusable," Hibbard said at a recent City Council meeting.
On Wednesday, the mayor announced that CSX has promised to fix the torn-up stretch of East Avenue within a couple of weeks.
CSX also has agreed not to shut down all four lanes of Court and Chestnut streets, the main routes to and from Clearwater Beach, when it does repair work on those railroad crossings. Instead, it will partially close those roads after Clearwater hosts its annual Ironman race Nov. 13.
Riordon just moved his bicycle shop, City Cycle and Supply, to a different corner of Court Street and East Avenue. He's moved from 700 Court St. to 703 Court St., but his new location still borders the torn-up railroad tracks.
Riordon has repeatedly talked to the CSX workers outside his door. He says they claim Clearwater wouldn't let CSX do the repair work the way the company wanted to, with large work crews and prefabricated sections of track. That would have closed down intersections for weeks, but the whole job would have been done by now, he has been told.
However, Clearwater officials say that's not true.
"That's bogus. Why would we do that? Any way they could do it faster, we'd be totally in favor of," said city engineering director Mike Quillen.
The city says CSX is at fault for the delays because it didn't have enough supplies to do the job, and the railroad's maintenance crew has been working on the project sporadically.
Once the railroad work is finished, Clearwater plans to redo and widen the section of the Pinellas Trail that runs along East Avenue. The city got nearly $1.4 million in federal stimulus money to do it.
"The whole thing should be wrapped up by December," Quillen said, "unless CSX keeps throwing curve balls at us."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.