CLEARWATER — Over the past decade, Pinellas County officials have spent $356,943 on four studies trying to determine what could make the notorious intersection of Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road safer.
All options in the first three studies — like adding more turn lanes, building an overpass, closing nearby medians approaching the intersection — were scrapped for cost or effectiveness.
Now the county's most recent analysis has called for a redesign that could be a first in Florida.
County traffic engineers are proposing a Median U-Turn, or Michigan Left Turn, for the intersection, which would eliminate the ability to make any left turns. Drivers heading east or west on Gulf to Bay would have to go through the intersection, make a u-turn at a signalized median and then a right turn to go north or south on Belcher. Drivers heading north or south on Belcher would have to turn right on Gulf to Bay and then make a u-turn to head east or west.
The proposal is in its infancy and would take years to become a reality if advanced. The concept would have to be approved by the County Commission, the county's transportation planning agency Forward Pinellas and Florida Department of Transportation before it could even move into the design phase, according to Nancy McKibben, program coordinator in the transportation division of Pinellas County Public Works.
But McKibben said it could be the most cost effective and safest alternative for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.
"I think everyone who drives on Gulf to Bay and Belcher would agree it definitely is in need of some consideration for improvement," McKibben said.
According to an analysis by engineering firm Ayres Associates, the project would cost $13.3 million. This latest analysis also considered and rejected an $80 million overpass for the intersection and three road-widening alternatives that would have cost between $15 million and $17 million.
Michigan was the first to begin implementing the Median U-Turn design in the 1960s and today has several hundred indirect left-turn intersections, according to Michigan Department of Transportation engineer William Taylor.
Taylor said the design has reduced crashes by 30 to 40 percent, an average based on various before and after studies.
The key is eliminating the left turn, one of the most dangerous actions on the road, said Stephen Remias, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne State University.
"You're essentially cutting the number of conflict points at the intersection in half," Remias said. "Left turns are one of the most dangerous crashes we see. It's where you get the right-angle, T-bone crashes."
Ayres Associates manager Hisham Sunna told a Forward Pinellas citizen advisory committee in March that design elements are key to prevent traffic from bottle-necking at the U-turn points. Some right-of-way changes on private property could also have to be implemented to make the U-Turn large enough for semi-trucks.
But Sunna said pedestrian safety would be improved because there are fewer points of oncoming traffic and safer crosswalk conditions.
Gulf to Bay and Belcher had the highest frequency of crashes of all intersections in Clearwater in 2011, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018 and has ranked in the top four each year since 2010, said Deputy Police Chief Eric Gandy.
Between 2014 and 2018 there were 526 crashes and three fatalities at the intersection, according to Forward Pinellas. On May 20, 2014, school crossing guard Douglas Carey was killed after a speeding driver ran a red light and collided with another car, striking Carey who was standing at the northwest corner of the intersection.
Since 2008 the county has implemented minor changes like improved signage, changes to signal operation, sidewalk repairs and installing east and westbound right turn lanes. In 2012 the city installed two red light cameras for the east and westbound traffic on Gulf to Bay.
But since 2012, development has boomed around the intersection. An apartment complex, Wawa gas station, Starbucks, Bob Evans restaurant and other development has been built, adding to the choke of cars turning off and onto Gulf to Bay near Belcher.
In July, 1.8 million cars traveled east-west through the intersection, and at peak times the number has hit 2 million, Gandy said.
"Volume, capacity and the complexion of the intersection has changed with development," Gandy said. "I think all those factors play a piece in this one."
While some have challenged the impact the red light cameras have had on frequency of crashes, McKibben said they were not part of the county's analysis.
A Florida Department of Transportation spokesperson confirmed there is not a Michigan Left Turn design operating in Florida.
Clearwater Traffic Operations Manager Paul Bertels said he thinks the Median U-Turn design "has some real promise" to address one of the most problematic intersections in the county because the high volume of cars makes left turns particularly dangerous at that location.
Forward Pinellas citizens advisory committee member Bill Jonson, a former four-term City Council member, called for this design to be expedited into the county's long-range plan because he said a lack of drastic design changes to improve safety and move cars through the city's main artery more efficiently has impacted the city at-large.
"This has got to move forward sooner rather than later," Jonson said. "The delay on this is affecting downtown."
Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.