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Roundabout, at last, comes around as a gem

(ran East edition)

Billed as a traffic savior and city centerpiece, the Clearwater roundabout has been fighting an image problem since it opened in December 1999.

The two-lane circle was more demolition derby than traffic control at first. And when the magnificent fountain was seen as magnificently inefficient, the city's centerpiece turned to shame.

In December, the roundabout turned 5.

And finally, it's starting to grow on people.

Off to a bumpy start

When the roundabout opened, it was hailed with fanfare.

Quickly it became littered with car wrecks.

"We had all those accidents in the very beginning because people didn't know how to navigate a circle," said Jack Heckert, an Island Estates resident and president of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce.

In its first seven months there was more than an accident per day at the intersection. None of the wrecks were serious, but city officials immediately started to rethink plans for the road, which is where the Memorial Causeway meets Mandalay Avenue and Coronado Drive.

A British tabloid even poked at Clearwater's folly, calling it a "Tragic Roundabout." Some residents called it "Roundabust."

In 2002, the city widened the turning radius for cars exiting the circle to help improve traffic flow.

Since then, Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said, the potential hazards have been mitigated.

"It works marvelously," said Shelor, who said accidents are no longer an issue. "Once it was polished, the roundabout became a rough gem. It does the job it was designed to do as far as moving traffic."

Heckert agrees.

"If you use common sense, you can get in and out there without any trouble," he said. "It's been great."

City officials say the roundabout is better equipped to move traffic off and on the beach than the previous collection of traffic lights.

Plus, with as many as 58,000 cars and 6,000 pedestrians passing on a spring break day, there has not been one fatality, said the city's traffic operations manager Paul Bertels.

"I'm an old signals and sign man," Bertels said. "I never would have believed this would have worked, but it's convinced me. This is the right place."

Council member Hoyt Hamilton, who works on the beach, said the circle has exceeded his expectations.

"Yeah, when it first got into operation, there were a lot of accidents, but it's been there five years, and the accidents have dropped to very, very few," Hamilton said.

"People have gotten used to driving it," Hamilton said. "The people who speak negatively of it don't drive it."

But not everyone is sold.

Clearwater Beach resident Anne Garris said she narrowly avoided two crashes on one trip through the loop in December.

"It's amazing to me that we don't have more wrecks down there," she said.

"A day we can celebrate'

When the roundabout opened Dec. 21, 1999, then-City Manager Mike Roberto said the showcase fountain in the circle's center would be a symbol for all of the Tampa Bay area.

Roberto, who would resign the following summer, said, "It is truly a day we can celebrate."

Erupting 33 feet in the air, the $1.7-million fountain welcomed visitors to the city's beach.

But rather than define the beach for tourists, it mimicked Roberto's tenure in Clearwater: grand, but troubled.

Aside from all the accidents first associated with the traffic circle, the fountain leaked. There were electrical wiring problems. And prevailing winds pushed water onto passing pedestrians and motorists.

"I'm glad I wasn't driving a convertible," said Bill Morris, the city's marine and aviation director.

Less than six months after the fountain opened, city officials began to roll back their expectations.

Mocked as the world's biggest birdbath, the massive wedding-cake-shaped fountain used more than 1-million gallons of potable drinking water some months. And by August 2001, officials turned off the fountain for good as maintenance costs spiked to $250,000 annually.

In December 2002, the fountain was demolished.

"The fountain was gorgeous when the weather was perfect and calm," council member Hamilton said.

"But with wind of any magnitude, it just became a car wash."

"Removing the fountain did a lot to improve the roundabout," said Bertels, the city traffic manager. "The fountain was a wall in your way."

Phil Graham, a landscape architect who designed the water feature, still has pictures of the landmark in his St. Petersburg office.

He understands why people say it needed to go, but he believes it could have worked.

For instance, it was originally supposed to use much cheaper reclaimed water.

"Of course, we were disappointed that it was removed," Graham said.

"The city fathers thought it was necessary and that's their decision.

"It was a wonderful project. And we're very proud of it."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at (727) 445-4160 or asharockmansptimes.com.

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