Drew Street safety overhaul will continue without costly trial run

The Florida Department of Transportation told the city a pilot run for the lane elimination and center turn lane could not be done with simple road painting.
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 June 7

CLEARWATER — A long-planned overhaul of one of the city’s main east-west arteries will go forward without a proposed trial run despite a late request this week from several City Council members.

During a Monday work session, a majority of council members, led by Mayor Brian Aungst Sr., told staff to look into repainting Drew Street as a way to test out the planned lane elimination and new center turn lane before the state begins ripping up the road.

But after meeting with state transportation officials on Wednesday, Clearwater engineering director Tara Kivett said such a test would be logistically and financially unfeasible.

Two months ago, the council had given the state the last approval required to complete design work. And with the Florida Department of Transportation projected to begin construction in mid-2024, Council members Kathleen Beckman and Mark Bunker described their colleagues’ proposed study as a last-minute attempt to derail the project amid pressure from the business community.

It was an inflection point in what has been an increasingly emotional, and political, transportation project in the works for seven years to reduce crashes and increase safety. The city’s chamber of commerce has in recent months advocated for reconsideration due to concerns about impact on businesses and traffic flow.

Currently, Drew Street between Osceola Avenue in downtown and Keene Road has two lanes in each direction with no center turn lane, making it so dangerous bottlenecks can occur when drivers stop to turn left across traffic.

Plans include converting the road to one lane in each direction in those 2.3 miles, with a 2-mile-long center turn lane within that stretch from Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road. The plan also includes expanded sidewalks and a bike lane for pedestrian and cyclist safety.

Kivett said for a pilot study to be effective, it must mimic the makeup of the final project. This cannot be done with simple striping, or painting, of the roadway, Kivett said.

State transportation officials told city staff on Wednesday that existing traffic signals could not accommodate the signalized left turns that are being proposed in the overhaul, Kivett said. The city would have to install new signal heads, which cannot be supported by the span wires that are out there now.

In order to redo the traffic signals for a pilot study, state transportation officials told the city it would cost about $5.8 million, according to Kivett.

Aungst on Wednesday said he accepted the outcome and that he never intended to derail the construction project by proposing a pilot study first.

“I’m fine with it because (the state) is going to work with us on designing the road,” Aungst said. “I wasn’t trying to kill it, I was just trying to get the numbers correct.”

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The mayor, who took office in April, said he was concerned that the project does not account for added traffic expected to come from the opening of the downtown waterfront park this month or the apartment, hotel and retail projects proposed around it. His concerns were echoed by Amanda Payne, CEO of Amplify Clearwater, the city’s chamber of commerce.

Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the metropolitan planning organization that secured $10 million in federal transportation for the Drew Street overhaul, said a traffic study completed in 2019 accounted for population and employment growth through 2045.

Residents for years have begged the city to do something about the dangerous conditions on the road, which from 2020 to 2022 included 500 crashes, 60 injuries and one fatality between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road, according to Blanton.

But in April, state Sen. Ed Hooper pushed language in the state budget to withhold funding until the department conducts another traffic study on the project’s impact.

On Monday, project manager Brian Shroyer said he could not confirm how much the extra study will delay the state’s target of bidding out construction work by June 2024.

Although the pilot study is now scrapped, residents who’ve fought for the safety changes, like Mike Riordon, said they are going to hold elected officials to the plan.

“I’m not letting my guard down until the project is complete,” Riordon said. “Sadly, after nearly seven years of fighting for citizens’ safety, it’s clear residents cannot relax until completion.”