Florida lawmakers seek to delay Clearwater’s Drew Street overhaul

Budget language submitted by Sen. Ed Hooper would withhold funding until another traffic study is conducted.
Drivers negotiate Drew Street between Highland Avenue and Betty Lane Wednesday, April 5, 2023 in Clearwater.
Drivers negotiate Drew Street between Highland Avenue and Betty Lane Wednesday, April 5, 2023 in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published April 28|Updated April 30

When the Clearwater City Council reaffirmed its support for a safety overhaul of Drew Street on April 4, it was the only approval the Florida Department of Transportation needed to advance design work on the east-west corridor notorious for crashes.

On Friday, state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, intervened with language in the state budget to withhold funding until the department conducts another study on how the lane reconfigurations would impact traffic.

The budget is expected to be finalized by lawmakers this weekend, and line items could change. But Hooper’s language was approved by both the House and Senate as of Friday afternoon, according to his office.

The development means yet another setback for the long-delayed project. With two narrow lanes in each direction and no center turn lane in the heavily residential section, the road is a hotspot for accidents as drivers create bottlenecks when stopping to turn left across traffic.

The project proposes converting 2.3 miles owned by the city and state between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road to one lane in each direction with enhanced sidewalks and bike safety. A center turn lane would be added within most of that stretch, the 2 miles between Myrtle Avenue and Keene Road.

In an interview, Hooper said he was not clear whether the last study conducted in 2019 accounted for added traffic expected to come after June when the city opens the renovated Coachman Park and downtown waterfront amphitheater. He also questioned the data because the study occurred before the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ll be the first one to say I’m all for transportation safety almost at all costs, but I don’t want Drew Street to be a parking lot either,” Hooper said. “Let’s take a breath, take a time out and let’s do an updated projection.”

But Whit Blanton, CEO of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency, said the study conducted in 2019 already factors in added traffic anticipated from the amphitheater, along with population and employment growth through 2045.

The amphitheater concept was approved by the City Council in April 2019. Hooper on Friday said he was not aware the amphitheater was envisioned that early.

Blanton said the pandemic also had a negligible impact on the analysis because traffic has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels reflected in the 2019 study.

“A brand new study, I’m certain, would come back with the same conclusion the previous two did,” Blanton said, noting the first study was conducted in 2017. “I don’t think (the Department of Transportation) would be advancing this if their findings weren’t valid and legitimate findings.”

Hooper’s comments echoed concerns long voiced by opponents of the Drew Street overhaul. They include some business owners and a minority of city officials in office as the concept was advancing, such as council member Lina Teixeira and former Mayor Frank Hibbard.

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Pinellas County staff and some elected officials, including County Commissioner Chris Latvala, also questioned the 2019 traffic projections at a meeting earlier this month. But the County Commission did not have authority to veto the lane reconfiguration because it is in city and state jurisdiction, Department of Transportation project manager Brian Shroyer previously confirmed.

Less controversial updates that don’t include lane eliminations are proposed for 2 additional miles east of Keene Road to U.S. 19, a stretch with a mixed ownership of state and county. Those include adding midblock crosswalks, repaving the road and adding islands in the existing center turn lane to prevent drivers from using it to pass.

“It’s hard to see that people looking to delay and do more traffic studies have the safety of residents top of mind,” council member Kathleen Beckman said of Hooper’s budget language. “Crash and injury statistics are clear — Drew Street is not safe. The Florida Department of Transportation already took into account COVID and downtown development, which only makes the problem worse: more accidents, more injuries, more deaths.”

From 2020 through 2022, the section of Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road had more than 500 crashes, according to Blanton. More than 60 involved injury, including one fatality. There were 550 crashes and a half-dozen fatalities from 2015 to 2019.

Earlier this month, Shroyer, the state project manager, told the City Council that computer models showed traffic would spread out slightly from Drew Street but would not impact surrounding east-west corridors like Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Cleveland Street “in any major way.”

He estimated travel time on the entire Drew Street corridor will be increased by only three minutes as opposed to major delays.

Blanton said 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 and back up traffic.

Work on the Drew Street overhaul began in 2016 when the city submitted a grant application to Forward Pinellas for a Complete Streets study to address safety concerns.

The City Council approved the concept plan in 2018, but 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 after the city did not lobby to begin the overhaul and secured funding for the traffic study and design. He secured $10 million in mostly federal funds for the project, which does not include any city or county dollars.

He called the interference by Hooper “a delaying tactic” because the project already has data with validated traffic models.

“The city of Clearwater has voted three times for this project, the Forward Pinellas Board has voted 10 times,” Blanton said. “The neighbors have been clamoring for this for years going back to 2004. We finally got momentum and there seems to be forces that are unhappy with the outcome.”