CLEARWATER — When an SUV recently slammed into a travel agency's building, the workers inside all thought the same thing:
Here we go again.
"We've had cars hit the building four times in six years," said Carol Dufresne, an employee at Bowen-Keppie Travel at 825 Court St. "This last time, I heard the impact. My jaw dropped and I said, 'Oh my God, not again.' It's just very, very nerve-wracking."
In 2008, another SUV smashed through a wall there.
The owners of the building, which is located on a curve in the road, say the location has become more dangerous since beach-bound traffic got switched from Cleveland Street to Court Street with the opening of the new Memorial Causeway bridge in 2005. They want the government do something about it.
However, city and state transportation officials say it's not that simple. They're not convinced there's a safety problem at this location. They don't think road engineers can realistically do anything to shield the building from passing traffic.
The building's owners are frustrated. They say the problem stems from the layout of the roads approaching the intersection of Court Street and S Prospect Avenue near downtown Clearwater.
"It's a nightmare location," said co-owner Chris Faubion. "We need results. Something needs to happen."
An S-shaped curve
Court Street, also known as State Road 60, is a busy four-lane thoroughfare at that point. Just before traffic on Court hits this particular intersection, the road bends through an S-shaped curve. Drivers, especially if they're not obeying the 30-mph speed limit, sometimes don't see cars trying to cross Court from S Prospect Avenue, a side street.
Another way accidents happen at this location is when beach-bound traffic backs up to a standstill along Court. Sometimes vehicles in three lanes will remain stopped to let a driver on Prospect get across the busy road, but a vehicle in the fourth lane won't stop, Dufresne and Faubion say.
That's what happened April 2 when a Clearwater fire marshal got into a crash while responding to an emergency call on a Friday afternoon. A car knocked his SUV into a reinforced pillar at the corner of the travel agency's building.
No one was seriously hurt — unlike a collision in April 2008 that sent an SUV smashing through a wall in the business. Police say that crash was caused by the SUV's driver, who ran a stop sign while trying to elude officers. A passenger in another car was killed. The impact shook the building like a bomb. A 71-year-old woman who usually sat in a corner office had called in sick that day — fortunately for her, since her desk got wiped out.
Clearwater traffic operations manager Paul Bertels says those two accidents are the only ones he can recall where vehicles hit the building.
Workers in the travel agency say it also happened in 2004 and again just last weekend — although a police report about last weekend's accident makes no mention of a vehicle hitting the building.
What to do?
The building's owners want something done. They want speed bumps put on Court Street, or a stop light at the intersection, or a guardrail on their corner, or Prospect Avenue closed, or Court Street's left hand lane turned into a left-turn lane at that location.
However, officials say those steps are unlikely.
"We don't put speed bumps on state roads," said Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation. "We don't put guardrails at the corners of intersections. The guardrail itself can be a hazard."
Guardrails are meant to deflect cars back into traffic, road engineers say. They're not meant to take a direct hit, which might happen if a southbound car on Prospect got t-boned by a vehicle on Court.
Traffic engineers concluded that the layout of Court Street isn't faulty and that most accidents at this intersection are caused by high speed or driver negligence, Carson said. She added that FDOT will ask local police to stop more speeders along that stretch of road.
A new traffic signal is also unlikely. There's no light at this intersection, but there's one just a block to the west at Court Street and Myrtle Avenue.
Clearwater traffic engineers examined records for the intersection and found about 40 crashes there since 2005. Although that may sound like a lot, Bertels says it amounts to about eight crashes a year, which isn't a high number for such a busy road.
Still, the travel agents who work at 825 Court St. are at their wit's end.
"It's nerve-wracking when you hear that impact," Dufresne said. "It's not a question of if it will happen again. It's a question of when it will happpen."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.