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Clearwater election could reverse years of planning for Drew Street overhaul

Half of the candidates oppose the project, which the city has approved but state lawmakers have delayed.
 
Drivers negotiate Drew Street between Highland Avenue and Betty Lane on April 5, 2023, in Clearwater. A proposed project by the Florida Department of Transportation would add a center turn lane on parts of the road.
Drivers negotiate Drew Street between Highland Avenue and Betty Lane on April 5, 2023, in Clearwater. A proposed project by the Florida Department of Transportation would add a center turn lane on parts of the road. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jan. 23|Updated Jan. 23

It was nearly a year ago when the Clearwater City Council took its final vote approving a long-discussed safety overhaul of a Drew Street stretch notorious for crashes.

But after state legislators delayed the project by requiring more analysis on traffic impacts, it has turned into a campaign issue in the March 19 election. The newly elected council could keep the project moving forward or put it in jeopardy, depending on who’s in the majority.

Last summer, chamber of commerce leaders raised concerns that the road changes would slow traffic to downtown. It prompted state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, to insert language into the state budget withholding funding for Drew Street until the Florida Department of Transportation completes another traffic study.

Months later, the state’s updated study is still pending during an election season in which three council races are on the ballot. Four of the eight candidates disagree with the plans, citing concerns about traffic flow. The two sitting council members not up for election are split in their support.

Drew Street has two lanes in each direction with no center turn lane in the residential section near downtown. The configuration often creates bottlenecks when drivers stop to turn left across traffic.

The proposal includes converting the road to one lane in each direction in the 2.3 miles between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road and adding a center turn lane in the 2 miles from Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road. It also includes expanded sidewalks, midblock crosswalks and a bike lane.

But could a new council majority kill a state initiative that is already being designed and not funded with any city or county money? It’s possible, according to Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s planning agency.

A rendering shows the 2 miles of Drew Street, from Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road, changing from four undivided lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane.
A rendering shows the 2 miles of Drew Street, from Myrtle Avenue to Keene Road, changing from four undivided lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane. [ City of Clearwater ]

Blanton said the council could not direct the state to halt the project. But if a majority of council members agreed, he said the city could ask the Forward Pinellas board to remove the roughly $12 million of mostly federal funds it secured for the Drew Street project from its transportation plan.

Staff from Hooper’s office did not immediately respond to questions about who decides whether the Legislature will release the funding once the traffic study is completed.

However, since 2016, when the city first requested a grant to develop a concept for the road reconfiguration, the Forward Pinellas board has taken at least 10 affirming votes on the project in light of the safety concerns.

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From 2020 through 2022, the section of Drew Street between Osceola Avenue and Keene Road had more than 500 crashes, 60 of which involved injury with one fatality, according to Forward Pinellas.

A sign is seen at the corner of Highland Avenue and Drew Street on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Clearwater. The Florida Department of Transportation is finalizing design work to overhaul 2 miles of Drew Street between Myrtle Avenue and Keene Road, converting from four lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane.
A sign is seen at the corner of Highland Avenue and Drew Street on Wednesday, April 5, 2023, in Clearwater. The Florida Department of Transportation is finalizing design work to overhaul 2 miles of Drew Street between Myrtle Avenue and Keene Road, converting from four lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“The way (Florida Department of Transportation) described it to me is they moved mountains to get this money in the work program,” Blanton said. “When (they) tell me they moved mountains for a project that is a local priority and regional priority, not their priority, that’s a good partnership.”

Although state officials previously said they expected to begin engaging contractors for construction in mid-2024, the start date has been moved to next year due to the delays caused by the traffic study, Blanton said. Department spokesperson Kris Carson declined to answer questions about projected start times.

“Here we are and it’s an election issue and that’s probably how they wanted it,” Blanton said.

Last week, a Republican political committee sent out a mailer attacking council member Kathleen Beckman on a variety of fronts in her campaign for mayor, including that her support of the project “will cause even more traffic congestion along Drew Street, already congested Gulf to Bay (Boulevard) and surrounding neighborhoods.”

But Blanton said preliminary results from the updated traffic study he saw from the state showed no additional travel time added as a result of the lane removals because a new center turn lane would eliminate bottlenecks that occur when drivers on inside lanes stop to turn left.

Candidates explained their positions on Drew Street in policy questionnaires from the Tampa Bay Times.

Beckman said she respects the state traffic and safety experts who have designed the reconfiguration and said getting it completed is a matter of safety. She said reversing course would further Clearwater’s reputation for “frequently changing direction or being indecisive.”

“I can’t support forfeiting this funding and allowing crashes and fatalities (to) continue to occur at an alarming rate on Drew,” Beckman said. “Residents overwhelmingly want to see Drew Street safer.”

Her opponent for mayor, lawyer Bruce Rector, said residents are also concerned about how the lane changes would impact the ability of first responders to navigate the road, and the flow of traffic to reach downtown businesses and events.

“We can make Drew Street safer without significantly restricting traffic flow, making Clearwater traffic congestion worse and having such a great negative impact to many in our community,” Rector said.

Of the three candidates for Seat 2, incumbent council member Mark Bunker is the only one who supports the proposal.

“One of the biggest reasons I am hoping to be reelected is to make sure the next council doesn’t undo the safety measures we have put into motion,” Bunker said.

Mike Mastruserio, a marketing executive challenging Bunker, said any delays for police, fire and ambulances “do not justify restricting traffic to two lanes” with a center turn lane.

“With the anticipated downtown growth as a residential, business and cultural hub, it is imperative that an efficient transportation system be implemented to … move cars, buses, delivery trucks through this major feeder in the city,” Mastruserio said.

Lealman Fire District Capt. Ryan Cotton, also a candidate for Seat 2, said he does not support the lane changes because he believes “it will simply divert traffic elsewhere and create problems on another roadway.”

For the open Seat 3, the three candidates are also split. Javante Scott, a neighborhoods coordinator for the city, supports the project because “data and research have shown that this scenario makes the street safer for those traveling.”

Jared Leone, a freelance journalist, said that the unsafe conditions are forcing drivers to avoid the section altogether and that the project “coupled with other investment could help strengthen surrounding neighborhoods and the nearby retail corridors.”

Mike Mannino, a small-business owner, is the sole Seat 3 candidate opposed to the project. He said it would “push unwanted traffic through our neighborhood streets in an irresponsible and unsafe manner.”