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Traffic signal talks a welcome change

There was a refreshing conversation Monday between Clearwater city commissioners and Pinellas County officials. After chatting amiably, they decided to try to find a way to consolidate government control of traffic signals on area roads.

People not familiar with Pinellas politics would miss the significance of that conversation. But people in the know understand that with civil conversation, common sense and reasonable consideration, the two local governments cleared a hurdle together.

Pinellas County Administrator Steve Spratt and County Commissioner Karen Seel had approached St. Petersburg and Clearwater officials in recent weeks to suggest that the county assume control and maintenance of traffic signals throughout the county. The reaction from both cities was less than enthusiastic.

As the two largest cities in the county, Clearwater and St. Petersburg control and maintain more than half of the traffic signals in Pinellas, even on county roads that cross their boundaries. Pinellas County government controls the signals in the unincorporated area and has contracts with 22 of the county's 24 cities to take care of their traffic lights.

Spratt, aware that Pinellas residents were increasingly unhappy about traffic congestion, decided that one government entity ought to be responsible for installing, maintaining and regulating traffic signals. That not only would make more sense and lead to better coordination, he said, it probably would be cheaper too.

But the county and some cities have not been getting along very well in the last few years, so consolidating any function, especially one that so impacts residents and voters, raised issues of trust and parochialism. With the Clearwater City Commission set to consider the proposal this week, the city staff recommended against Spratt's proposal and instead suggested commissioners support a different plan that would provide a mix of county and city control.

At a public meeting Monday, Clearwater commissioners sat in one end of the meeting room facing a lineup of top county officials, including Spratt and Seel. After a presentation about the Clearwater staff recommendation and a recitation of all that the Clearwater traffic control department does well, it appeared the two groups were on opposite sides of the issue.

But what ensued was a careful and low-key discussion among leaders who all want to do what's best.

The subject matter wasn't easy. City commissioners had received some information indicating that county government is slower to repair traffic signals and respond to residents' complaints. When they broached that subject, Seel and Spratt didn't get defensive, but said that if the county needed to improve its record, it would. When several city commissioners said they were concerned about turning over signals to the county and having no way to go back if they were unhappy with the service, Spratt said the city could build an exit strategy and standards into a written, binding agreement with the county.

Without a single cross word or raised voice, the county and city agreed to sit down together and start working on a plan to consolidate control of traffic signals.

There are no guarantees _ the negotiations ultimately could fail _ but each side showed a genuine interest in trying to accommodate the other and eventually accomplish a coordinated traffic signal system. "We do have to work together," said Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst. "It's long overdue."

Now, it is St. Petersburg's turn at bat.