CLEARWATER — Residents who live off Drew Street, and commuters who make their way along the east-west corridor, all have their horror stories.
With two narrow lanes in each direction and no center turn lane in the heavily residential section, cars regularly blow past the 35 and 40 mph speed limits and brake suddenly when drivers stop to turn left across traffic.
From her home near Orangewood Avenue and Drew Street, Margaret Page can walk to two yard memorials where people have died. Once, she ran to help kids climb out of a car after an accident. Visitors take the longer route through the neighborhood instead of driving on Drew and risk being rear-ended as they turn onto her avenue.
“Dangerous doesn’t really describe Drew Street,” Page said.
The City Council on Tuesday confirmed its support for a state overhaul that would convert the four undivided lanes in the 2.3 miles between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road to one lane in each direction and add a center turn lane in the 2 miles from Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road.
It’s part of a broader plan for safety changes to Drew Street that also includes 2 additional miles to U.S. 19, but the lane repurposing is limited from Osceola Avenue to Keene Road. Although discussions began seven years ago, and the city approved a concept plan in 2018, the state requested a letter of support from Clearwater for the lane repurposing as design has begun and will be 60% complete by June.
The 3-1 approval, with council member Lina Teixeira voting no, revived a debate that has lingered for nearly a decade and contributed to the major transportation project being delayed for years. Proponents have begged for changes to increase safety, while opponents worry the changes will push cars onto surrounding roads and create traffic problems for downtown and Clearwater Beach.
“When I weigh a devastating head-on collision against maybe being 15 minutes late to work, safety wins,” council member Mark Bunker said. “I don’t see how you can look at it any other way, honestly.”
From 2020 through 2022, the section of Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road had more than 500 crashes, according to Whit Blanton, CEO of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency. More than 60 involved injury, including one fatality. There were 550 crashes and a half-dozen fatalities from 2015 to 2019.
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Blanton helped secure the $10 million in mostly federal funds for the project, which does not include any city or county dollars. To this point, he said the Forward Pinellas board has taken 10 affirming votes on the project.
The Pinellas County Commission is scheduled to discuss the project on Thursday. Brian Shroyer, Florida Department of Transportation project manager, said he wants design feedback from county officials but their signoff is not required for the lane repurposing because it is out of their jurisdiction.
He said construction could begin in late 2024.
The city owns the 0.3 miles between Osceola and Myrtle avenues, and the state owns the 2 miles between Myrtle and Keene Road. A third segment of the project, 2 miles from Keene Road to U.S. 19, has a mixed ownership between the county and the state.
Improvements for the third segment, where four travel lanes will remain, include creating midblock crosswalks, repaving the road and adding islands in the existing center turn lane to prevent drivers from using it to pass.
Shroyer countered some fears that repurposing the lanes on Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road would displace traffic and overwhelm surrounding roads, including Gulf to Bay Boulevard, the city’s other main east-west artery. He said computer models run by the state indicated traffic will spread out slightly from Drew Street but will not impact Gulf to Bay “in any major way.”
He estimated travel time on the entire Drew Street corridor will be increased by three minutes.
Blanton said modeling through 2045 shows Drew Street volumes would remain consistent as drivers would adjust habits and not bleed over to Cleveland Street and Sunset Point Road, the two lesser traveled east-west arteries. He said part of this is because adding a center turn lane will increase capacity and eliminate current bottlenecks that occur when drivers on the inside travel lanes stop to turn left.
From Osceola to Myrtle avenues, improvements also include a bike lane with a 3-foot buffer to accommodate flex posts and a 5-foot sidewalk with a landscaped buffer on both sides of the roadway. From Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road, the state will add an 8-foot sidewalk on each side of the road, along with marked crosswalks at sections without traffic lights and other speed-reduction efforts.
That’s what worries some business owners. Dan Shouvlin, who owns restaurants in downtown and Clearwater Beach, said employees already struggle to get to work due to traffic.
Teixeira doubted the traffic analysis since it was done during the coronavirus pandemic. She questioned how the modeling captured added visitors who will come after June, when the city will cut the ribbon on the $84 million renovation of the downtown waterfront and music venue. She made a motion to deploy a pilot study with striping and cones to test the changes, but the motion died with no support.
But the project has already seen delay after delay. After the City Council approved the concept plan in 2018, the study gathered dust and the road remained unchanged. Engineering director Tara Kivett said previously that the road’s mixed ownership complicated next steps.
Blanton intervened in 2020 when the city did not lobby to begin the overhaul and secured funding for the traffic study and design. Residents kept up the pressure.
Mike Riordon, who owns a bicycle repair shop on Drew Street, brought elected officials on walking tours to show how, in some areas, sidewalks are too narrow for a wheelchair.
Last year, Riordon received an award from the Gulf Coast Safe Streets Summit for his advocacy.
Shroyer said there is still room for feedback on the project as the state completes the design. Riordon said he feels the need to stay vigilant so there are no more delays.
“I’m confident this project is going to happen,” he said, “but we’re going to have to stay on top of it.”
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the county-owned stretch of Drew Street.)