Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 [email protected] Send letters to the editor by visiting the website

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

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Rep. Wilson accuses White House chief of staff of 'character assassination,' calls for apology


    WASHINGTON - Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., on Sunday called White House chief of staff John F. Kelly "a puppet of the president" and said he should apologize for having made false claims about her while defending President Donald Trump's military condolence calls.

    Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., talks to reporters, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) FLAD103
  2. Metal engine cover piece breaks off jet, falls from sky in Clearwater


    CLEARWATER — A piece of metal broke off a jet leaving St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Sunday morning, but the aircraft turned around and landed safely about 8:40 a.m., according to investigators.

  3. AP Top 25: USF stays ahead of UCF, but just barely


    USF remains ahead of UCF in the latest AP Top 25 poll - but just barely.

    Quinton Flowers and USF dropped one spot to No. 17 in the latest rankings.
  4. Lightning Strikes! podcast: Breaking down the Bolts' record start


    In this episode of our Lightning Strikes! podcast, we break down the Lightning's record 7-1-1 start. Why are Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos clicking so well? Why Mikhail Sergachev is likely here …

    Why are Steven Stamkos, pictured, and Nikita Kucherov clicking so well?
  5. Girl's fatal fall aboard cruise ship in Miami raises concerns over safety


    A child's fatal fall aboard a cruise ship a week ago appears to be an unusual accident, but it still may raise concerns about safety for potential passengers traveling with children.

    Friends and family mourn Zion Smith, the 8-year-old girl who fell to her death aboard a Carnival cruise in Miami this weekend. [Image from Facebook]