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Pinellas County will explore East Lake Road overhaul

A study completed last fall showed that the key north Pinellas road was operating at nearly double its carrying capacity in some places.
Cyclists cross East Lake Road at Keystone Road as traffic piles up northbound Wednesday in Palm Harbor.
Cyclists cross East Lake Road at Keystone Road as traffic piles up northbound Wednesday in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 18|Updated Jan. 18

A congested thoroughfare for the suburbs of north Pinellas County could be headed down a long course toward relief, with county commissioners voting Tuesday to approve the next stage of studies on East Lake Road.

The road is the main artery for the unincorporated neighborhoods east of Lake Tarpon and part of many drivers’ commute between Pasco and Hillsborough counties or parts of Pinellas. A major overhaul of the road — including its widening — is still hypothetical and would be years away. The next step, the subject of Tuesday’s vote, allows environmental-impact and engineering research that will make a future project eligible for federal funding.

Traffic streams southbound on McMullen Booth Road just south of where it merges with East Lake Road Wednesday in Palm Harbor.
Traffic streams southbound on McMullen Booth Road just south of where it merges with East Lake Road Wednesday in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It came on the heels of an 18-month study, commissioned by the county, that wrapped up in October.

“I don’t think there were really any big surprises,” said Kelli Hammer Levy, the county’s public works director, during a commission workshop Thursday. “Anyone who drives that corridor knows there’s a significant capacity problem.”

The divided four-lane road, built to carry about 36,000 vehicles per day, conveyed as many as 62,000 a day along some stretches in 2021, according to the study. The busiest portions of the road — which stretches from Curlew Road in the south through Trinity Road at the county’s northern edge — could be burdened by more than 80,000 vehicles a day by 2045.

From 2016 through 2020, there were more than 1,700 crashes on the road, including 10 deaths, according to the study.

The sheer strain on the road shows that it’s due for widening, which would cost an estimated $85 million, Levy said. But the study found that changes to key intersections also would be needed for the road to get up to snuff. That work was pegged at a price range of $3 to $31 million, though County Administrator Barry Burton noted that some of the higher-end changes suggested in the study, such as overpasses, “are not very feasible” for the area.

Traffic piles up on northbound East Lake Road at Cypress Woods Blvd on Wednesday Palm Harbor.
Traffic piles up on northbound East Lake Road at Cypress Woods Blvd on Wednesday Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

John Miolla, who has lived near East Lake Road for 28 years and founded the Council of North County Neighborhoods, said congestion and crashes on the road have long been sources of consternation for residents. Though people are divided on whether the road should be widened, he said, they generally agree the road needs a change, especially as development in Pasco County has led to more traffic on the road.

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“I’ve seen the growth,” Miolla said. “I remember when East Lake was a single highway each direction. There’s no silver bullet for traffic.”

County Commissioner Dave Eggers, who represents the northern part of the county, said Thursday that he’s often stuck in traffic on East Lake. He suggested that, in the meantime, county staff look at changing traffic patterns during rush-hour, so that cross-streets have shorter green lights and traffic on the main road longer ones.

Other shorter-term changes, including lengthening left-turn lanes, could come in the interim, Levy said. But none of those would solve the greater problem: In a growing county, the four-lane road just isn’t enough.

“We are looking beyond the bigger picture,” she said. “Even with doing some of these smaller things, the bigger picture is capacity, and we just don’t have it right now.”