Give them credit for trying to think outside the box. ¶ Clearwater officials, still struggling to find property on which to build a Clearwater Beach parking garage, have begun exploring some additional ways to ease the parking crunch on the island.
One option: Ask weekend visitors to park on the mainland in the county parking garage near the Pinellas County Courthouse, then shuttle them to the beach via a new, dedicated lane on Memorial Causeway.
Even if the city is successful at identifying land on which to build a beach parking garage — the City Council voted recently to hire a real estate broker to try to reach a deal with property owners — it could be two or three years before a garage is finished. And garages on the beach don't address a goal of reducing the number of vehicles surging onto the island's overloaded streets during busy times.
The city's new idea, which is preliminary at this point, does address that particular goal, and that makes it worth pursuing. It would provide a place for people to park before they even reached the Memorial Causeway Bridge.
The county's 498-space parking garage, close to the eastern end of the bridge, is virtually empty when the courthouse is closed on weekends and holidays. The city would work out a deal with the county to use the empty structure when the county isn't using it. The city also would have to work with the Florida Department of Transportation to create an express lane for the shuttle. Mayor Frank Hibbard is convinced that the shuttle service would succeed only if people stuck in traffic on the causeway could see the shuttle bus zooming past, and only if taking the shuttle were cheaper than feeding parking meters on the beach.
Having satellite parking on the mainland is an idea floated by some of those in city government for years. More recently, it also has been advocated by some residents and beachgoers frustrated with the city's inability to provide more parking on the island.
However, others have panned the idea. They believe Tampa Bay area residents are too wedded to their cars to leave them on the mainland when they go to the beach. They also have said that families with children, particularly, will not use a shuttle because they have too much gear to carry when they go to the beach.
That's something that perplexes City Council member Carlen Petersen. At Monday's council work session, she talked about how she had toted snow ski gear for three children on shuttle buses without a second thought. Still, she wondered how the city would "counteract all the naysayers out there" about satellite parking.
There are a couple of other potential shortcomings to the county garage idea. One is that it would not be available on weekdays during spring break season, when traffic also is heavy. Another is that if traffic lights would have to be installed on Memorial Causeway to allow the shuttle bus back in, causeway traffic would be slowed even more.
A strength of the county garage idea is that the shuttle system could be utilized at peak times, but shut down during those months of the year when the beach is not so busy.
Parking for beachgoers is, truly, a dilemma, and it will only worsen when construction of Beach Walk is finished, making Clearwater Beach even more of a destination. At least until the city is able to build a public garage on the beach, any idea that would ease the pain is worth considering.