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Fed up with North Pinellas traffic? Join the club

CLEARWATER — Sick of staring at lame bumper stickers? Listening to radio DJs? Refreshing Facebook on your cellphone for some glimmer of joy while you sit trapped in endless traffic, the sludge of another spring break?

You're not alone. But if you drive on U.S. 19, Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard or — shudder — the beach, you already knew that. Traffic is nearly twice as heavy as usual, turning main drags to parking lots.

And there's no end to the gridlock in sight.

Let's add up the aggravation: spring break beachgoers. Spring training fans. Heat-seeking snowbirds. And who can forget the gray asphalt nightmare of construction on U.S. 19?

"All those factors," county traffic signal operations manager Ken Jacobs said, "add up to this being the worst four weeks of the year."

Gulf-to-Bay traffic has swelled from 35,000 cars a day to 60,000, Clearwater traffic operations manager Paul Bertels said, and slowdowns from previous years — the weather? The economy? — seem to have given way to this spring's outright onslaught.

Some of the worst spring break congestion could be behind us, with Florida universities and Hillsborough schools now back in session. Pinellas public schools take their break the week of March 26.

But besides the sun-warmed "breakers" and the red sea of Philadelphia Phillies fans heading to games at Bright House Field, a few sporting events could also slow and snare.

The USF Tournament, which hosts two dozen softball teams from as far as the Netherlands, will tie up the area around Clearwater's Eddie C. Moore complex early today. And the finals for the Clearwater Women's Open, a tournament at the Henry L. McMullen Tennis Complex, begin at 1 p.m. today.

But perhaps some of the worst slowdowns, at the gridlock epicenter of U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay, come from the roads themselves. With construction ongoing, vehicle sensors have been taken offline and traffic signals changed to pre-timed routes.

To accommodate all the different lanes and directions, Jacobs said, the intersection is now running at "about as inefficient a phasing as you can get."

That means traveling from U.S. 19 to the beach can take, during the peak hours, up to an hour and a half, Bertels said.

Some professional drivers have learned to zigzag away from the mayhem. Police officers and ambulances go out of their way to take the Belleair Causeway. Cab drivers take cross-county shortcuts like Drew Street, said Ed Hanna, a driver with Bay & Beach Taxi.

Some tow-truck drivers said they avoid motor-club calls for service from the beach, saying the hourlong wait to get there wouldn't be worth the pay. When they must venture out, they work their own stealthy shortcuts.

"We've learned which neighborhoods go all the way down," said Leftie Kotakis, owner of Kotakis Towing. "Trade secret."

Anthony Hinckley, the general manager of a Dominos Pizza on Myrtle Avenue, nearly doubles his four-driver staff during peak hours. His pizzeria's phone number is on some of the beach hotels' room keys, and most of their business on late nights is back and forth on the beach.

The drivers, he said, have divined their own system: Incoming drivers call out areas with accidents or bad gridlock, and veteran drivers have been known to coach rookies on shortcuts.

(Big tips from the moneyed and hungry in posh hotel rooms or desperate drunks leaving the Shephard's Tiki Bar also tend to sweeten the drive.)

Nationwide Towing owner Ginger Darling said, "It's worse this year. Swear to god, there's got to be a double full moon going on."

And it's not just the influx of tourists who gum up the roads, she said: People with Florida license plates, frustrated with the gridlock, have been seen acting out just as badly.

To stay sane, work drivers said they fumble with the radio, ease anger with hand gestures or gripe with friends through Bluetooth headsets. Others said the simplest relief for a traffic jam is to take their eyes off the road.

"Just enjoy the sights out there," Kotakis said. "It's a beautiful day."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@tampabay.com. Send letters to the editor by visiting the website tampabay.com/letters.

Fed up with North Pinellas traffic? Join the club 03/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 17, 2012 2:13pm]
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