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Column pulls in advice on U.S. 19

The commission chairwoman's call for ideas has generated dozens of suggestions for improving the road.

Carol Jones figures she has seen it all during her 40 years of driving U.S. 19 _ from the woman doing her nails behind the wheel to the drivers trying to write and talk on their cell phones at the same time.

So, when County Commission Chairwoman Sallie Parks wrote a guest column in Friday's St. Petersburg Times seeking suggestions to improve U.S. 19, Jones sent her 2 cents to Parks via e-mail.

"Not sure if a truck lane or a slow traffic lane would work, but doubt it would hurt. More tickets for failing to have proper (turn signals) could perhaps help," wrote Jones, a Clearwater resident who drives U.S. 19 to Tarpon Springs daily.

Parks seems to have struck a nerve. As of Wednesday afternoon, her column had generated about three dozen e-mails. The drivers using U.S. 19 are angry about road conditions and frustrated more isn't being done to solve the problems.

Yet, for the most part, their ideas are well thought out and seem simple enough, such as suggestions to make businesses display their street addresses more prominently. Some suggestions, like eliminating median cuts and better synchronizing traffic lights, have been around for years.

Many of those responding, however, were just happy a public official asked the people who know the road the best: the commuters and residents who brave the congested, often dangerous, 34 miles of U.S 19 in Pinellas County each day.

"It was so refreshing to pick up the paper and actually see that a government official not only recognized a serious problem, but was seeking input from their constituency," wrote James W. Higgins of Dunedin. "It almost renewed my faith in government."

Like Jones, Higgins wants the county to do something about drivers who plod along well under the speed limit in the left and center lanes.

"It seems that a large number of people, probably out of a misplaced desire to control others, feels it is their duty to hold the line and prevent others from passing them by," Higgins wrote.

Enforcing traffic rules and etiquette was a common theme.

Jim McPherson of Palm Harbor says he rarely sees police pull over speeders or reckless drivers on U.S. 19.

"Many drivers, I believe, think it is open season to drive as dangerously as they desire on 19 since there is little likelihood of any consequences," McPherson wrote.

Parks, who is out of town on vacation, could not be reached for comment, but Sarah Ward, head of the county's transportation planning division, said some of the suggestions are already in the works, while other ideas have been discussed but are either too expensive or not feasible.

One improvement planned within the next year is to put the range of upcoming addresses on the overhead signs at intersections, Ward said.

As far as getting businesses to show their addresses more prominently, that is something the county is trying to get chambers of commerce to work on with their members, Ward said.

"That's one that has come up constantly through the years," she said.

Another thing the county is working on is developing a better computerized traffic signal system. What most people don't realize is that the traffic signals on U.S. 19 are synchronized; they just aren't capable of adapting to changing traffic conditions, such as those caused by wrecks and stalled vehicles or heavier than normal traffic.

Like some of the suggestions, installing a new signal system would cost millions of dollars.

Money, or the lack of it, is at the root of most of U.S. 19's problems. But some major projects have been scheduled.

Construction on a U.S. 19 overpass at Drew Street will begin next summer, while work on an overpass at Sunset Point is scheduled within five years. There is also a plan to put continuous right-hand turn lanes on U.S. 19 in the north part of the county.

"We probably get more concerns about U.S. 19 than any other roadway in the county," Ward said. "The big concern is we've got so much to do on U.S. 19 and so little resources."

Ed Sallas of Safety Harbor, who also wrote to Parks, believes the main problem is political.

Sallas wrote that the county must limit access to the roadway, a suggestion he believes will be opposed by businesses.

"It must lose its image as a gigantic strip mall and "window shopping' artery for local business," Sallas wrote. "U.S. 19 must become an effective transportation artery, else it will become a parking lot, with engines running, smog spewing, and drivers talking on the cell phones. Government's failure to act will hurt us all."

_ Joe Newman covers county government. He can be reached at 445-4166 by phone or at newmansptimes.com by e-mail.

Speak out

To reach Sallie Parks, write her at 315 Court Street, Clearwater, FL 33756 or send e-mail to sparksco.pinellas.fl.us.

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