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Cities see traffic signs as bright idea

(ran PS edition of PT)

Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg are replacing old metal traffic signs with lighted versions they hope will be easier to see.

So you're driving through one of those Tampa Bay thunderstorms, on U.S. 19, say. Maybe it's the weather or the fading late-afternoon light, or maybe your eyes aren't what they used to be.

But you just can't see those street signs.

Area traffic officials feel your pain.

The what-street-was-that? challenge is diminishing thanks to new, internally lit signs designed as beacons amid the gray urban landscape.

The signs, which hang from metal mast arms rather than wire, are replacing traditional metal signs because traffic planners believe drivers will have an easier time finding streets, especially in poor weather or unfamiliar territory.

Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg are having the lights installed as part of their own projects as well as in conjunction with the state Department of Transportation.

Todd Bosso, senior design engineer for Largo, said at least three intersections there sport the signs, including East Bay Drive and Country Club, and East Bay and Lake.

He said there are plans to add about 18 more signs between 2002 and 2004.

In St. Petersburg, transportation and parking director Angelo Rao said within the next few years, the signs will be visible along most of 34th Street and parts of Tyrone Boulevard.

"They are aesthetically better, and with more of a senior community, there is a huge impact as far as visibility goes," Rao said.

Also, because the signs and traffic lights will hang from metal poles rather than wire, they are less likely to flap about in the wind during a storm.

Doug Hersey, a Largo sign and traffic technician, said even if the signs are not functioning, they are made of a special highly reflective sheeting that is more powerful than current signs in reflecting car headlights.

The lights, funded by the DOT, are installed only on state roads, and cities must agree to maintain the lighted signs, including paying for electricity and replacing light bulbs.

DOT spokeswoman Marian Scorza said the signs cost about $7,500 an intersection, while traditional signs cost $300 to $400 for an intersection.

Doug Mullis, a traffic engineer at the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the lighted signs are replacing the old metal signs when work is done on an intersection with a traffic signal.

In Clearwater, fewer than 10 of the signs have been installed so far, but plans are in the works for more.

"We're putting them up all around Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard," said Paul Bertels, the city's traffic operations manager. They will also better direct drivers on Fort Harrison Avenue from Bay Drive to Drew Street.