CLEARWATER — Just two months ago, the City Council took the final vote required for the Florida Department of Transportation to finish designing a safety overhaul of Drew Street that is seven years in the making.
Now, amid concerns from the city’s chamber of commerce about how the overhaul could impact traffic flow and businesses, the project could face more scrutiny before the state can break ground.
A council majority wants to explore whether to conduct a pilot study using striping and signage as a trial run first.
During a work session on Monday — with a consensus reached by Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. and council members David Allbritton and Lina Teixeira — the council directed city staff to confirm how much a study would cost before taking a vote on whether to approve it.
According to estimates from engineering director Tara Kivett, the city could end up paying about $3.5 million for such an endeavor.
With design work expected to be done late this year and construction planned to begin in mid-2024, Aungst said a pilot would allow the city to implement traffic pattern changes even sooner. He said the city could also implement needed tweaks gleaned from the exercise before millions of dollars and years of construction were wasted.
“I am not trying to stop this, I am trying to make sure we do it correctly out of the gate,” Aungst said.
However, because the lane reconfigurations have been planned primarily to reduce crashes and deaths on Drew Street, council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker said a pilot period only provides an opportunity for the business community to find flaws and kill the project.
If businesses are unhappy with the lane configurations after the trial period, Beckman said no Plan B has been presented to replace the roadway that exists today — a stretch that is infamous for crashes and fatalities.
“Safety triumphs everything, except when the business community wants to make a couple extra bucks,” Bunker said.
The pilot idea follows another recent development that aims to slow the project. State Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, pushed language in the state budget to withhold funding until the department conducts another study on the project’s impact.
Drew Street serves as one of the city’s main east-west arteries. But with two narrow lanes in each direction and no center turn lane within the heavily residential section, cars often brake suddenly when drivers stop to turn left across traffic, causing bottlenecks and dangerous conditions. Sidewalks are also narrow and inconsistent, and Allbritton admitted he no longer bikes the road out of fear for his safety.
The overhaul concept, completed in 2018, includes converting the four undivided lanes in the 2.3 miles between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road to one lane in each direction and adding a center turn lane in the 2 miles from Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road.
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Additionally, the plan includes improvements for the 2 miles east of Keene Road to U.S. 19 that don’t require a lane elimination. This stretch is proposed to have midblock crosswalks added, the road repaved and islands added in the existing center turn lane to prevent drivers from using it to pass.
The roughly $10 million in federal transportation funding was secured by Whit Blanton, CEO of Forward Pinellas, the county’s metropolitan planning organization.
The Department of Transportation completed a traffic study in 2019 that accounted for population and employment growth through 2045, according to Blanton.
On Sunday evening, the council heard from Amplify Clearwater, the city’s chamber of commerce. Amplify CEO Amanda Payne sent an email to the city council explaining that her organization hired “a local consultant” who prepared a 24-page report outlining concerns with the project.
In an interview Monday, Payne said that based on industry standards for growth rates and input from Amplify’s consultant, the group is concerned that the state’s completed traffic analysis has underestimated the amount of vehicles that will use the entire corridor through 2045. She also said the chamber has not attempted a last-minute derailment but has been communicating concerns to officials for months.
“It’s our job as community leaders to plan for the next generation,” Payne said. “If we’re going to make major changes to our community and to a major thoroughfare, let’s make sure we’re accounting for ever evolving needs.”
While the Florida Department of Transportation expected to begin engaging contractors for the construction in June 2024, the Legislature’s requirement to conduct another traffic analysis could potentially delay the bid opening date, according to project manager Brian Shroyer.
Shroyer could not confirm how long construction could be delayed if the council also proceeds with a pilot study. He said depending on the length of the pilot, whether it’s “one month or one year,” the department would have to analyze that data and then see what changes need to be done for the design.
In a letter to city staff, the state Department of Transportation explained that the pilot would not be as simple as re-painting the road and adding cones to change the traffic flow.
The 2.3 miles from Osceola Avenue to Keene Road would have to be resurfaced because grinding or water blasting the current pavement markings would cause damage and leave confusing visual indicators for drivers, according to the letter. The center turn lane would also require islands to prevent drivers from using it as a travel lane, the letter states.
In its letter to the city, the department stated the completed traffic analysis and the reanalysis being done at the Legislature’s request “currently meet the necessary standards and requirements for accurate and reliable data.”
Beckman raised this point at the work session and questioned why her colleagues were doubting the professionals who have already vetted the changes.
“They have numbers,” she said, “and for some reason you choose not to believe them at the last minute.”