The sunburnt glory of spring break is back, and for many beach locals that means one thing: gridlock. About 50,000 cars ring the Clearwater Beach roundabout every day during the shore's busiest season, which begins this weekend and lasts through April.
But don't fret. There are reasons to believe traffic could be quicker and parking more ample on the beach than ever before.
The beaches surrounding Pier 60 have always been big with "breakers," many of whom come from local schools.
The University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, the University of Tampa and Florida State University begin their weeklong breaks this weekend.
Hillsborough schools' and the University of South Florida's holidays are the week of March 12. Pinellas public schools take their break later, during the week of March 26.
Beach-bound weekend traffic also could lock up with another event: USF's Under Armour Invitational. The Division 1 college softball tournament, at the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex on Drew Street, continues on weekends through March 18.
This year's spring break, however, will be the first for the city's Intelligent Transportation System on Court Street. Newly installed "adaptive" stoplights, digital signs and cameras, traffic planners said, should smooth out at least some beach-bound traffic, though how they'll perform during peak traffic remains to be seen.
Parking should be less hectic. The six-floor, 350-space Surf Style parking garage opened last July, just south of the Pier 60 parking lot, and should handle some of the overflow. Both lots charge $2 an hour.
About 10 other parking lots open to the public line Mandalay Avenue and Gulfview Boulevard, charging between $1.25 and $2.75 an hour. Popular new pedicabs, gratuity-only electric taxis and the looping Jolley Trolley will help a bit, too.
Police officers will be patrolling the beach on heavy-duty golf carts, called Kawasaki Mules, looking for the drunk and disorderly. Digital signs are already out along the roadway warning against open-container violations on the beach, which carry a $118 fine.
The inrush of high school and college kids could be big business for the shops lining the waterfront. This year will be the first spring break for Surf Style, the $10 million beach gear megastore next to the city's BeachWalk promenade and the Hyatt Regency hotel.
General manager Edward Lehmann said Surf Style is preening for the youth market, advertising its surf-simulating FlowRider machine on billboards and mobile-billboard trucks.
"Spring Break is like the holiday season for a retailer out here," Lehmann said. "The comparison in my mind is to Black Friday."
But not every beach business is catering to young tourists. The Sea Captain Resort on the Bay, a quaint hotel overlooking the beach marina, keeps a reservation age limit: 25 and up.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.