CLEARWATER — Transportation officials are thinking of taking dramatic measures to improve safety downtown where the Pinellas Trail crosses State Road 60, the main route to and from Clearwater Beach.
At that point, State Road 60 is separated into one-way Court Street, heading west, and one-way Chestnut Street, heading east. State officials are considering narrowing each of those streets from four lanes to two lanes just before they reach the trail.
Clearwater officials know the state's proposal will raise some eyebrows — especially on Court Street, where beach-bound traffic already backs up during spring break and on busy beach weekends.
"This is the dumbest idea I've ever heard," said Clearwater Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "The people driving are going to be up in arms. ... They're going to be really upset, and they should be."
Clearwater's traffic operations manager, Paul Bertels, updated the City Council on the Florida Department of Transportation's "concept plan" during a council work session Monday.
"The DOT's under a lot of pressure to get this done," Bertels said. "This isn't carved in stone yet, but this is what the DOT is pushing."
Bicyclists and pedestrians who use the 34-mile Pinellas Trail have called for safety improvements at the State Road 60 crossings, he said. Accident data were not available this week.
On Court Street, the two outside lanes would be blocked by raised concrete islands with flashing lights. Vehicles in the outer lanes would be forced to turn left or right at Myrtle Avenue, a block east of the trail crossing. Meanwhile, the inner two lanes would continue on toward Clearwater Beach, according to the proposal.
Overhead signs posted on Court Street east of that point would attempt to steer drivers to the proper lanes.
The City Council wasn't excited by this plan. Council member Jay Polglaze called it "a choker lane."
"Even with plenty of forewarning — you're going to have another sign on Court — the traffic is jammed up," Polglaze said. "They still won't be able to get over into the middle as much as they want to."
However, Bertels said it wouldn't be that bad.
"We filmed the roadway for a week," he said. "We observed that most people, by the time they get to MLK (Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, east of Myrtle), they pretty much know what lane they have to be in."
He said 86 percent of the traffic on Court Street at that point is headed toward the beach, and only 14 percent of the vehicles shift into the two outer lanes. Computer modeling suggested that beach traffic wouldn't be delayed by the new setup, he said.
Gibson asked Bertels: "Would you do something like this?
Bertels responded: "After a lot of study on our part, I really see no other solution to making the trail safe."
The strategy on eastbound Chestnut Street would be similar, funneling its four lanes down to two lanes somewhere between Fort Harrison Avenue and the Pinellas Trail.
The council discussed whether a pedestrian overpass would be possible instead, similar to the ones that carry the Pinellas Trail over Ulmerton Road and other busy streets. But the idea didn't have much support. Officials said such an overpass would be expensive, lengthy and unsightly.
Pinellas County's transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, also will consider the DOT's proposal.
DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said the department would continue working with the city and the MPO.
"We want to work with the elected officials," Carson said. "We want to make sure this is something that the community wants."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.