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Spring offers no respite from traffic

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Residents and officials look for ways to dodge traffic snarls as spring break traffic further clogs the normally packed roads.

Every work day, Maurizio Grande buzzes down S Gulfview Boulevard on his scooter, turning heads in the process.

About a month ago, the co-owner of the Grand Pizza and Ice Cream shop on Clearwater Beach said he got fed up with battling heavy traffic along the Memorial Causeway only to get to his shop and find no place to park.

So for $250, the 39-year-old purchased an electric-powered scooter on the Internet. Now, he loads his scooter in the trunk of his car, parks in a free grass-and-gravel lot on the east end of the bridge and rides his scooter past the whiz of cars, pedestrians and bicyclists into work.

"Now, on my scooter it's no problem," Grande said. "I just leave my car here and I am there in 10 minutes."

The 39-year-old Grande is one of many Clearwater Beach-goers looking for ways to avoid jammed streets and the lack of parking around the island. But with only 1,700 public spaces on the beach and thousands more motorists each day looking for places to park, city officials don't see much relief in sight.

"During spring break is the height of our season and if we had another thousand spaces or even doubled what we have, it still would not be sufficient," said Tracey Bruch, parking facilities manager for Clearwater. "We're a small island and we can only handle so many cars."

The planned $65-million Marriott resort is expected to make about 400 more public spaces available when it is completed in the fall of 2003.

But in the meantime, the City Commission approved rate increases for public and employee parking on the beach to make funds available for the construction of more spaces.

Before Jan. 1, the cost to park in metered spaces was $.75 or $1.00 per hour depending on location. For parking in a lot with an attendant, the rate was $1.50 per hour, and for beach employees purchasing permits, the cost was $15 per month.

The commission voted in December to increase the metered rate by 25 cents, the lot rate by 50 cents and the permit cost to $30 and $50 during the peak months of March and April.

"The price was set too low initially and we were losing about $13,000 a month in revenue," Bruch said. "Fifteen dollars a month was just way too low for a monthly permit and we felt we didn't want to take it away _ but we had to control it in some manner."

Police officials say contrary to popular belief the roundabout has helped the traffic run smoother on and off the beach, compared to the former cluster of intersections and traffic signals that one helped direct the flow.

"But the problem that won't go away is that there are just too many cars," said Wayne Shelor, police spokesman. "What people don't understand is people are sitting in traffic and they're looking for something to blame _ and it's not the spring break people, because they don't drive around. There is not enough room for the cars that go to Clearwater Beach."

Officials say an average of 54,000 cars went through the beach roundabout per day during spring break last year, which is about 14,000 more than on a normal day. Also, there were 5,000 pedestrians in the area each day.

Shelor took issue with Grande riding his scooter through the streets and sidewalks of Clearwater Beach.

Motorized scooters, according to Shelor, are considered motor vehicles, and it is illegal to ride them on city streets and sidewalks.

Shelor said that motor vehicles are required to be licensed, and to drive them on the road a driver's license is necessary.

But because of their size, licenses are not issued for motorized scooters _ yet.

"So it's a Catch-22," Shelor said. "I don't picture him getting in any trouble, but I see it as dangerous because somebody is going to get hurt _ but this is coming from a guy who is all for beating beach traffic."