LARGO — The county’s transportation planning agency is pitching an idea to local governments to narrow a portion of West Bay Drive to add more space for cyclists and pedestrians.
The plan, formed by Forward Pinellas, focuses on a 2-mile stretch between Clearwater-Largo Road and the Belleair Causeway, which runs through Belleair Bluffs and Largo.
Advocates say adding more options for pedestrians and cyclists will improve connectivity from the Pinellas Trail to the beaches, spark economic development and slow drivers speeding down the busy east-west corridor. But opponents worry it would make an already-chaotic road less safe and more congested.
The changes would happen in tandem with a county road resurfacing project scheduled for this year. The project is on hold while Forward Pinellas works to get municipalities on board.
"This is a once in 15-to-20 year opportunity," said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas.
In a presentation Tuesday to Largo city commissioners, Blanton pointed to several issues with the road.
Drivers tend to speed over the 30 to 35 mph speed limits posted in the mostly four-lane corridor. The median lane is flat, and there are few places for pedestrians to cross other than the busy intersections at Clearwater-Largo Road and Indian Rocks Road. There are no bike lanes or paths. Biking on a road can be intimidating for casual riders, and the sidewalk is broken up by driveways from local businesses, he said.
Florida and the Tampa Bay area have long been called out in studies as being among the most dangerous places in the country for pedestrians and cyclists.
Blanton also pointed to an increase in crashes in the West Bay corridor as a sign something needs to change. From 2012 to 2014, there were no more than 56 crashes, according to Forward Pinellas’ presentation. That number jumped to 87 in 2015, then 101 in 2016.
"Something is going on that’s a concern there," he said.
Blanton proposed two plans. Both would narrow the driving lanes from 12 to 11 feet in the outside lanes and 10 feet in the inside lanes. The median would also narrow to 10 feet. For comparison, Drew Street in Clearwater has 10-foot lanes.
The first concept, which would come at a minimal cost on top of the county’s resurfacing project budget, would add 5-foot bike lanes on each side of the road and widen the sidewalks. It also includes some landscaped pedestrian islands in the median and more landscaping between the sidewalks and the road.
The second concept, endorsed by Forward Pinellas based on community feedback, is about $2 million more than the resurfacing budget, Blanton said, but includes more amenities.
Instead of bike lanes in the road, there would be a 12-foot multi-use path on the south side of West Bay, split from the road by a 10-foot landscape buffer. The median would have more landscaped pedestrian islands and some mid-block crosswalks. An 8-foot sidewalk would remain on the north side of the road.
Commissioners didn’t give formal direction at the meeting, but the board seemed to lean toward the second concept.
In-road bike lanes are "going to be used by two guys in tight pants and that’s it," Mayor Woody Brown said.
"Why not be bold?" he asked.
Commissioner John Carroll pointed out the city’s interest isn’t to get drivers from the bay to the beaches as quickly as possible.
"We want them to slow down and take a look at Largo," he said, harping on a longtime goal of city officials to make the city more of a destination than a pass-through.
Commissioner Jamie Robinson asked if there was a way the affected cities could help pay for the more expensive option. County officials and City Manager Henry Schubert said they would look into it.
Blanton has received some pushback from residents and officials in other municipalities over concerns the changes would worsen a bad situation.
"This would turn West Bay into a deadly version of amusement park bumper cars," wrote Largo resident Colleen Pacocha in an email to Forward Pinellas dated October.
At a meeting in November with Belleair Bluffs commissioners, Mayor Chris Arbutine said he thought bike lanes would be better suited for a secondary road.
"It’s not that we don’t want to do this," Commissioner Suzy Sofer said. "We just want to make sure they do it properly."
Forward Pinellas will present to Belleair Bluffs again on at 6 p.m. Jan. 22 and to the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce at 8 a.m. Jan. 17.
Information from Tampa Bay Newspapers was used in this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.