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IT'S TRAFFIC SEASON

Getting to south Pinellas County's beach communities is hard. Getting around once you arrive is tougher. And it's all going to get worse before it gets better.

Three bridge construction projects have squeezed traffic in and around Treasure Island, Madeira Beach and St. Pete Beach. As spring break, spring training and spring boating seasons loom, pressure is mounting.

"It's nothing but traffic problems," said Larry Hoffman, the president of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce, which sits between the closed Treasure Island Causeway bridge and Gulf Boulevard, the beaches' main drag in more ways than one.

"If I was going to do a plan to create a total disaster, this is what I'd do."

In addition to the closure of the Treasure Island bridge, the John's Pass bridge is half closed, choking seasonal traffic into one lane in each direction. For good measure, a yearlong project has just begun on the Tom Stuart Causeway, the next mainland connection north of John's Pass.

Who thought this was a good idea?

No one, actually. But navigating between six months of hurricane season and four months of tourist season leaves little room for years-long projects to repair vital connections, authorities say. When warm-weather boat traffic makes draw bridges rise, congestion will only get worse.

"Safety is more important than convenience," said Don Hambidge, Treasure Island's public works director, of the timing of his bridge project.

He said the Treasure Island Causeway bridge project ended up overlapping with other projects because of material delays. Steel, used first for armor in Iraq, has been scarce, for example. Other projects' long planning cycles made conflict inevitable.

"There's never a good time to do construction, especially in a beach community," said Kris Carson of the Florida Department of Transportation, which is managing the John's Pass and Stuart Causeway projects. "No matter when you start, you're always going to go through a season."

The earliest the Treasure Island project will be done is June. So the worst traffic jams will come between now and then. The Transportation Department urges drivers to divert south to the Corey Causeway in St. Pete Beach, which already has seen enough new traffic that the county is retiming traffic lights to get cars off the beach.

Some drivers may head north, through the John's Pass construction, and brave lane closures on the Stuart Causeway or head all the way to Park Boulevard, which is free and clear. On the land side, drivers are reporting increased traffic on Park Street as they seek to circumvent the clog.

County officials say they are monitoring all related routes to see where delays are, but there aren't many options for improving flow.

The projects each have their own urgency. The Treasure Island bridge was at the very end of its useful life when it was closed for complete replacement.

Hambidge already had limited truck traffic for fear the weight would punch a hole in the bridge deck. As the linchpin in the congestion, the bridge also should be the release valve when half of the structure reopens in June or July. It will then allow one lane of traffic in each direction until it's fully opened in late 2007.

The John's Pass bridge was in not quite so dire a situation, but Transportation Department engineers say waves and tides had severely damaged its foundation. Rehabilitations shored it up for a time, but the bridge needed replacement to strengthen the crossing and make the channel safer.

One lane will flow each direction on the eastern bridge span during the first 18 months. After that, work will switch to the new western side, which will be wide enough to allow two lanes each way. After another 18 months, both sides of the bridge will open with two full lanes on each, but another year of work will go on elsewhere on the structure.

The Stuart is undergoing more modest adjustments: repaving, sidewalks, railings and mechanical and electrical work on the draw bridge. The Transportation Department also will protect the foundation against minor erosion, with the work extending the bridge's life for 20 years, although there will be more maintenance.

"The public needs to expect every five or 10 years there will be some work going on," said Pepe Garcia, the department's bridge engineer for the region.

The Stuart work will close only a lane at a time in any direction, though there may also be some additional night closures for repaving.

Further up Gulf Boulevard, the county is working on utilities in Indian Rocks Beach, causing some lane closures. In September, the county will start work on the Belleair Causeway, which will also close lanes and, for some overnight periods, the entire bridge.

PARK BOULEVARD BRIDGE is open as a detour from the south with no construction planned.

TOM STUART CAUSEWAY Resurfacing and bridge work, plus sidewalks and utilities and other work. Some lane closures now; starting next month the outside westbound lane will be completely closed for about three months. When that lane reopens, work will switch, closing the outside eastbound lane for two months.

JOHN'S PASS BRIDGE Southbound side is closed completely for about 18 months while drawbridge is replaced. Twoway traffic is using what was the northbound side. Work will then switch, but new southbound bridge will be wide enough to allow two lanes in each direction.

TREASURE ISLAND CAUSEWAY drawbridge is completely closed to vehicle traffic until at least June. Half of the new bridge should be completed in July, when it will reopen to allow one lane of traffic in each direction until the rest of the bridge is completed in 2007.

COREY CAUSEWAY Open as a detour to and from Treasure Island.

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