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Proposal sends wrong signals

County transportation planners have been quietly studying traffic signals throughout Pinellas for months, trying to find intersections where traffic congestion could be eased by eliminating stop lights.

Planners wanted to review 70 likely targets and present the list to city and town leaders for comment. But somehow, an internal report by transportation officials found its way onto the desk of Largo Mayor George McGough.

As a result, a meeting of the usually calm Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) Friday turned into something more lively.

MPO Commissioner John Chesnut, who also sits on the County Commission, suggested members take a short course in diplomacy before presenting the list of possibly ill-fated traffic lights to municipal officials.

"You send them a list of lights you want to take out, and you know where they're going to tell you to put that list," Chesnut said with a broad smile.

The controversy began with a letter McGough sent to MPO Chairman William Mischler, who also is a Pinellas Park City Council member. In it, McGough does what Chesnut suggests most municipal officials will do _ tell the MPO to leave the lights alone.

"The city of Largo appreciates the opportunity to participate in this program," McGough wrote. "However, further evaluation of the traffic signals within the city of Largo is no longer necessary."

The MPO, which coordinates road planning in the county, plans to continue to analyze traffic lights on the list. Its staff has recommended that officials consider the political ramifications of removing signals.

Hugh Pascoe, administrator of the county's Transportation Planning Division, said planners will have to look at each of the 70 intersections carefully before recommending that signals be taken down. Then, officials will have to weigh the concerns of the local community.

"The result may be that it's politically unfeasible to take these lights out," he said.

In Largo, seven signals have been mentioned as possible candidates for removal.

But, Chesnut said, the lights in Largo are likely to remain unless officials do a good job of persuasion.

"Unless we go about it right, show the reasons to remove them and explain it, if we go to Largo with a list of seven lights we want to take out, we're wasting our time," Chesnut said. "This is one of the most important things we've got going. But unless we do it right, we might as well quit."

Mischler agreed. He said the group would have to proceed cautiously, "unless you want a war."

War is precisely what the MPO will get, MPO Commissioner Jim Miles said, if it tries to remove the traffic signal at East Bay Drive and Fourth Street in Largo. Miles also is a member of the Largo City Commission.

"We ain't gonna take that light out," Miles said. "We'll put an armed guard at that light first."