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In Clearwater, an improved Drew Street is in sight after years of inaction

The state has set aside $6.5 million for the project, and an Aug. 17 meeting is planned with the public.
Drivers navigate Drew Street Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 in Clearwater. The Florida Department of Transportation has completed an analysis of the 4-mile stretch of Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and U.19. that it will present to the public on Aug. 17.
Drivers navigate Drew Street Friday, Aug. 6, 2021 in Clearwater. The Florida Department of Transportation has completed an analysis of the 4-mile stretch of Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and U.19. that it will present to the public on Aug. 17. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 8

CLEARWATER — Every day, Andria Hanson takes the long way home.

She lives right off Drew Street, one of the city’s two main east-west corridors, but considers this direct route the most dangerous choice she could make.

Drivers regularly speed well past the 40 mile per hour limit. There is no center turn lane for cars going left across traffic in the heavily residential section. Pedestrians have narrow, deteriorating sidewalks and no bike lanes to keep them safe.

“I’m always thinking, ‘Am I going to get rear-ended today? Is this the day I’m going to get hit?’” Hanson said.

The Florida Department of Transportation has finished an analysis of the 4.3-mile stretch of Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and U.S. 19 with a plan to begin design for an overhaul in September and construction in 2024, according to Brian Shroyer, a project manager with the agency. The department will present the findings at a public meeting Aug. 17.

The state’s analysis is the long-awaited next step to a concept plan Clearwater completed in 2018, which for the downtown and residential sections, proposed eliminating a traffic lane, widening sidewalks, and adding bike lanes and a center turn lane.

But then the study gathered dust and the road remained unchanged.

“When the leadership of a city does not give clear direction and clear guidance to move forward, things languish, and I think that’s kind of what happened with Drew Street,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency. “There’s been this ambiguity on the part of the city of supporting recommendations of the plan, even after adopting it.”

Clearwater engineering director Tara Kivett said staff did not pursue implementing its plan because the road’s ownership configuration complicated the project.

The city owns the 0.3 miles between Osceola and Myrtle avenues; the state owns the 2 miles between Myrtle Avenue and Keene Road; and the remaining 2 miles to U.S. 19 is owned by Pinellas County.

“Because our portion, especially in the challenging areas, is minimal when evaluating the entire corridor, the efforts on a feasibility and lane elimination study and design is more appropriate for the jurisdiction who owns and is responsible for the largest segments, hence FDOT,” Kivett said.

But the city never lobbied for the state to initiate the overhaul. Last year, Blanton intervened and asked the Florida Department of Transportation for funding and to conduct the traffic analysis needed to begin design work.

Blanton helped secure $1.7 million for design in 2022 and $4.84 million for construction in 2024 in Department of Transportation funding.

When asked why the state has not addressed deficiencies in its 2-mile segment until now, including deteriorating sidewalks and narrow traffic lanes with no center turn medians, spokesperson Kristen Carson said: “We understand that some issues have been ongoing but we are trying to be responsive.”

Because of the mix of ownership, a total renovation would require approval by the City Council, City Manager Bill Horne confirmed.

Clearwater elected officials have expressed caution about the overhaul for years, considering the impact it could have on congestion. In June 2019, the council adopted the citywide Complete Streets plan, a policy for improving roadways to consider all modes of transportation — but the unanimous vote was hardly one of confidence.

Before voting to approve the plan, then-Mayor George Cretekos worried about how reducing vehicle lanes on one of the city’s two main east-west corridors would slow the flow of traffic and negatively impact surrounding businesses.

He cautioned city staff that the adoption of the policy “doesn’t mean to destroy our roadways.”

“While I appreciate mobility, while I can appreciate alternative ways of getting to work or getting to the beach or getting to the supermarket, we’re going to use our cars, we’re not going to ride a bicycle,” Cretekos said at the meeting. “Shucks, kids hardly ride a bicycle to school anymore.”

Mayor Frank Hibbard, elected in March 2020, said he wants to see safety improvements to Drew Street, primarily on the width of vehicle lanes and sidewalks, and to address the speeding issue. But before cosigning on the overhaul, he wants to review the state’s study to see how eliminating vehicle lanes would impact the flow of east-west traffic.

He also wants to understand how much traffic may be diverted north to Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, the other main east-west artery in the city.

“I think it would be premature to commit to anything without seeing what the ramifications of the (state’s) study are going to be to Gulf-to-Bay,” Hibbard said. “I want to see what the numbers look like.”

Between 2015 and 2019, there were 1,432 crashes on Drew Street, including nine fatalities, according to Florida Department of Transportation. Four of the deaths involved bicyclists and one was a pedestrian.

Much of Drew Street is included in the county’s “high injury network,” a collection of streets that make up 2.7 percent of roadway across Pinellas County but have 40 percent of crashes with fatalities and serious injuries.

More than 10 years ago, Clearwater completed a renovation of downtown portions of the east-west Cleveland Street to help calm traffic. It included reducing traffic lanes from four to two between Missouri and Myrtle avenues and adding a winding median between Myrtle and Osceola. The changes displaced some traffic north to Gulf-to-Bay and Drew Street, which Hibbard said he does not want to exacerbate by reducing lanes on Drew.

Pinellas County Commission chairperson Dave Eggers acknowledges the county’s portion from Keene Road to U.S. 19 has also been neglected. For this more commercial section, the city’s concept plan proposed keeping two lanes in each direction but improving the configuration of the medians and adding mid-block crosswalks.

“We’re behind, we should have done a better job at keeping that road up to speed,” Eggers said. “I think it’s the mid 1980s when it was last paved.”

In the meantime, residents worry about the dangerous conditions. Mike Riordon, who owns a bicycle repair shop on Drew Street, has been pressing city, county and state officials to act for years.

He has brought elected officials on walking tours to show how, in some areas, sidewalks are too narrow for a wheelchair and how power poles jut up, posing risk for pedestrians and bicyclists.

“The city and the state are complicit in intentionally doing nothing for years,” Riordon said. “There’s been deadly and dangerous aspects to this road for years.”

• • •

IF YOU GO:

What: Stakeholder meeting for Florida Department of Transportation’s Drew Street corridor study

When: 1-3 p.m. Aug. 17

Where: East Community Library at St. Petersburg College, East Community Room, 2465 Drew St., Clearwater, and online at: attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/5407421691586604558