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Put fear of circles aside; enjoy beach

It's time to come back to the beach.

Local residents who stopped coming to Clearwater Beach because they feared driving through the famous beach roundabout should give it another try. The roundabout is now 5 years old, and police and traffic officials say it is no longer an obstacle to safe passage to the beach.

"It works marvelously," Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor told the Times for a recent story on the roundabout.

"It's been great," said Jack Heckert, president of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce.

"I never would have believed this would have worked, but it's convinced me," said Paul Bertels, Clearwater's traffic operations manager.

The roundabout, envisioned by a previous city administration as both a traffic solution and a grand entrance to Clearwater Beach, was the scene of traffic mayhem for months after it opened in December 1999. Cars bumped into each other. Trucks ran over the shrubbery and got stuck trying to turn through the tight circle. The wedding cake-style fountain that filled the middle of the circle sprinkled cars and blocked views of oncoming traffic. Lane markings and signs were confusing.

Motorists' inability to properly navigate the traffic circle put the Clearwater Beach roundabout on the pages of international tabloids.

The Clearwater City Commission, none of whose members were in office when the roundabout was approved, became the butt of many jokes and much angry rhetoric from motorists. Some residents demanded that the city tear up the roundabout and put back the traffic lights the circle had replaced.

Instead, commissioners made the tough decision to fix the roundabout and give it more time to work. Lanes were widened, pavement markings and signs were changed, and the showpiece fountain was demolished.

Today, the Clearwater Beach roundabout isn't as pretty, but it works exactly as intended: It keeps traffic moving on and off the beach, even on the busiest days. It is easy to forget that the old traffic signals used to bring traffic to a halt, creating gridlock on beach streets and Memorial Causeway.

Police say that accidents are no longer a problem in the roundabout. Those who regularly drive the circle know to get in the proper lane and drive slowly around the circle until they reach the exit they want.

Some of those who still criticize the roundabout admit they never have driven it or tried it only in the first few months of operation. They long for a walk on Clearwater Beach or a taste of their favorite grouper sandwich, but they stay away out of fear.

Come on back to the beach. Today there is no reason to fear the much-improved Clearwater Beach roundabout.