Twenty years ago, traffic experts anticipated the problems that now plague the Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road intersection in Clearwater. But opposition from residential neighborhoods along Belcher Road, along with the expense of acquiring right-of-way, led the county to never substantially widen the commercial stretch north of Druid Road. In hindsight, what a mistake that was.
Even with the alternative of an improved U.S. 19 and the Bayside Bridge, traffic came anyway, choking Belcher Road between Druid and Drew streets and making the Gulf-to-Bay/Belcher intersection one of the most dangerous in Clearwater.
Contributing to problems have been traffic backups at rush hour, narrow lanes, alignment and signage issues, too many business driveways, too much speed and too little enforcement. The hazards are plain to see, but it took the May death at the intersection of a popular school crossing guard and retired police officer, Douglas Carey, to prompt new action from local and Florida Department of Transportation officials. Carey, 70, was killed when a speeding car ran a red light, crashed into another car and spun into him as he stood on the corner.
The most obvious fixes aren't available. The intersection needs widening, but no public right-of-way remains. All four corners are privately owned and developed.
But FDOT has a few other ideas: refreshing worn lane and crosswalk markings, extending the left turn lane for Gulf-to-Bay traffic turning south onto Belcher and studying the timing of the traffic signals. Clearwater plans to install in-pavement sensors that will adjust the timing of the traffic lights to help traffic flow, which it seems could have been done long ago. The intersection has red-light cameras, but the curbside warning signs are too close to the intersection and too small to be easily seen. Overhead signs would be more effective.
FDOT noted that many of the accidents in the intersection happen when vehicles are turning left across oncoming traffic. Officials suggested the turn lanes may need a longer green light so drivers aren't tempted to turn through traffic gaps that are too small. But FDOT should study left turn lane alignments on Gulf-to-Bay to see if there is a way to make oncoming traffic more visible. If an adjustment in turn lane alignment wouldn't help, FDOT should consider allowing left turns only on green arrows.
Traffic counts at the intersection are likely to grow, as the southwest corner is being developed with more than 200 apartments and a shopping plaza. The developer agreed to create right turn lanes on Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher to ease access into the development, but that does nothing to reduce the number of cars packed into an already heavily congested area.
Gulf-to-Bay at Belcher is a problem that warrants the best thinking of state, county and city traffic officials. Yes, their warning was ignored years ago, but their help is essential now.