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Stuck in turf war gridlock

County and municipal officials have an opportunity in the weeks ahead to take a giant step toward common-sense management of the county's patchwork system of traffic signals.

Early indications are that they will pass.

Say what?

In surveys and on the street, Pinellas residents constantly complain about traffic congestion, calling it the No. 1 irritation of living here. Business owners say congestion, combined with a poor road network, is a limiting factor in their growth.

One of the challenges is that multiple jurisdictions are responsible for the roads that crisscross Pinellas. There are state roads, county roads and city roads, but the average motorist doesn't know who is responsible for the roads he is traveling. All he knows is that it seems impossible to catch a series of green lights.

Given the opportunity to bring some sense to the nonsense that is Pinellas' road network, why would local politicians pass?

The answer isn't simple, but control and political turf have a lot to do with it.

Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt and County Commissioner Karen Seel are pushing for county government to be given control and maintenance of all traffic signals. The county is responsible for all signals except those in Clearwater and St. Petersburg, but that is still less than half of the total countywide. Clearwater and St. Petersburg have their own traffic control centers and staffs, and they control their traffic signals as they wish.

Spratt and Seel believe it makes a lot more sense and ultimately will be less expensive and confusing and that congestion will be reduced if one government entity handles traffic signalization countywide. They have asked Clearwater and St. Petersburg to approve the idea. Spratt personally contacted both Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and proposed not only that county government take over signal control and signal maintenance on their city roads, but that the county also be given regulatory authority over all county roads within city limits, just as the state has jurisdiction over state roads regardless of city limits.

But St. Petersburg and Clearwater have been cool to the idea. They argue that they do a better job of controlling and maintaining their traffic signals than the county does, boasting, for example, of 48-hour turnarounds on signal repairs, a maximum 30-minute response to signal outages, and doing the job with fewer people. They accuse the county of not being responsive to citizen complaints or taking weeks to fix malfunctioning signals.

Furthermore, the two cities are fearful that if they turn over their signals to the county, they will lose the opportunity to adjust signal timing when there are special events in the cities or when residents appeal for a change in the timing of a light.

Pinellas officials counter that 22 municipalities in the county have turned over signal control to county government and the county does the job just fine.

On Monday the Clearwater City Commission will discuss the issue in a work session to be attended by Spratt and county transportation officials. But the city's traffic specialists, whose jobs could be impacted by the commission's decision, already have recommended the City Commission turn down the plan that would consolidate all authority in the county.

They prefer a system, approved by the Metropolitan Planning Board before Spratt came on board, that would offer a mix of countywide and local control. A Primary Control Center in mid-county would operate signals on major corridors, while secondary control centers in St. Petersburg and Clearwater would control signals on local roads. That plan is painted as an effective consolidation, but it sounds like too many cooks in the kitchen. And it is not clear how that system would save money.

Elected officials should remember as they deliberate that this discussion should not be about preserving the jobs of their traffic control staffs or about taking control of lights when a parade or baseball game is going on or about protecting political turf. It must be about serving the public interest, about fixing a transportation system that not only is dysfunctional but sometimes deadly.

We doubt that the motoring public cares who is responsible for a signal or a street. They just want to be able to drive from one end of Pinellas County to the other without pounding the steering wheel.

If Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and Clearwater officials can't hammer out an agreement on an issue as basic and uncomplicated as consolidation of traffic signal control, they will never be able to tackle the more ticklish issues facing Pinellas and touched on in this year's Pinellas Assembly.

Let's hope they surprise us.