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Traffic calming force loses city job

(ran East and South editions)

Former city traffic engineer Angelo Rao, sent to sit in a corner months before he was fired last week, drew heavy criticism for his zealous effort to slow cars and trucks traveling on residential streets.

But others liked the job he did, saying his approach made streets safer in a city consistently ranked as part of one of the nation's most dangerous traffic networks.

And some are sorry that he was forced out of city government.

"I think Angelo was very well thought of in the neighborhoods," said Steve Plice, president of the Jungle Terrace Civic Association.

"I think he did a superb job of educating people on issues, exploring options, communicating, working with neighborhood associations and individuals one on one. I think he did that in a way we don't see very often in St. Petersburg."

After five years with the city, Rao was one of three people laid off last week in a budget cutting step. Earlier this year, outgoing Mayor David Fischer took away most of the clout Rao had as transportation and parking services director, placing him in an assistant's job in the city engineering department.

Rao leaves as legacy an array of speed humps, raised intersections, stop signs and traffic circles in several neighborhoods. They were installed after neighborhood associations requested them.

Jim Biggerstaff, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, went to war over one of Rao's more controversial projects, the downtown parking "pay stations."

But Biggerstaff said Rao's traffic-controlling efforts deserve praise. He also said that since Rao's demotion, such projects have slowed down.

"Disston Heights approved calming well over a year ago, and we still haven't gotten anything," Biggerstaff said.

While neighborhood leaders and some of their followers basked in the new roadway landscape, others accustomed to using the areas as unobstructed speedways grumbled, cursed and resolutely searched for less annoying thoroughfares.

Shore are among other neighborhoods that received the traffic devices.

North Shore made a first attempt to slow speeders with numerous stop signs along First Street N (and other neighborhood streets). Rao did not endorse them, but he did give neighborhood leaders what they demanded.

North Shore's newest device is a traffic circle, a flat, elegant disk of red brick set in the intersection at First Street N and 30th Avenue.

The tiny island, across from the waterfront Coffee Pot Park, appears to have engendered more confusion than calm. It draws sarcasm and curses. Cautious drivers pause, or even stop, on seeing the signs that ask them to yield to traffic in the minuscule circle. Others simply ignore the signs, the circle and, worst of all, other drivers, as they barrel on.

Nonetheless, the traffic circle has its proponents.

"I'm very much in favor of it," said Eileen O'Sullivan, secretary of the North Shore Neighborhood Association.

"People are so obsessed about getting where they want to go at the fastest possible rate, they forget about people," said O'Sullivan, including those using the nearby playground at the park.

In the far south neighborhood of Pinellas Point, neighborhood leaders sought not only to slow traffic but to discourage it along 66th Avenue S, where homeowners often complained about residents and visitors at the nearby Mariners Pointe apartment complex.

Maximo also has its share of traffic humps. Several are concentrated on 37th Street S, behind the Bay Pointe Shopping Center and an Eckerd drugstore, and are meant to discourage drivers from using neighborhood streets as a thoroughfare.

An old-fashioned, attractively landscaped traffic circle guides vehicles smoothly through the intersection of 50th Avenue and 37th Street S. Complications arise, however, as one drives north to 38th Avenue and 37th Street S. A small, landscaped island makes traffic hazardous as cars speed around the obstruction without heed to life or limb.

Ralph Stacy, the Maximo Civic Association president, said Rao was helpful to Maximo and that the devices "most definitely" improved neighborhood traffic conditions.

"We got very few complaints," Stacy said. "People got accustomed to them."

In Jungle Terrace near Tyrone Mall, 80th Street N is awash with signs warning of traffic humps and that the 25 mph speed limit is strictly enforced.

Both Walter Fuller Park with its colorful playground and the Raymond A. Naimoli Baseball Complex are on the street, which has six speed humps between 22nd and 37th avenues N.

Along 22nd Avenue N near Tyrone Square Mall, improvements have made the bus stops and crossings safer for mass-transit users. Downtown, where elderly people cross slowly by foot, wheelchair or tricycle, traffic lights sport little blue men to signal when walking is safe, and flashing "eyes" to warn that a "don't walk" signal is imminent.

At some level, the idea of traffic control is tied to what some might call over-reliance on vehicles.

"I think there's still a debate (about) what the role of the automobile ought to be in this city. Many of us think the automobile is too dominant, and the city and our houses shouldn't be built around automobiles," said Plice, the Jungle Terrace president.

"One of the reasons Angelo ran into trouble is because that's not sorted out yet. If this were a city in Europe, or even a city in Canada, we probably wouldn't have as much controversy about it."