BELLEAIR BLUFFS – A Complete Streets proposal for West Bay Drive that its backers say would make the road more bicycle and pedestrian friendly was presented at the Jan. 22 city commission meeting.
The plan was a modified version of a similar proposal the commission saw in October. At that meeting, commissioners and residents had opposed narrowing of traffic lanes on West Bay from 12 feet to 10, which would be needed to add a bicycle/pedestrian path on the south side of the road and landscaping on both sides. The reduced lanes would also slow traffic, with the objective of making the roadway safer.
Whit Blanton, director of Forward Pinellas, the county group with responsibility for the plan, showed the latest version that he said incorporates responses to some of the concerns expressed earlier. The favored concept still has narrowed drive lanes, but the outside lane is reduced by 1 foot, from 12 feet to 11, while the inside lane remains 10 feet as previously planned.
Blanton said the Florida Department of Transportation guidelines for Complete Streets programs permit lane widths as narrow as 10 feet. While most traffic engineers prefer 12-foot lanes (as West Bay is now) because they are more accommodating to larger vehicles, 11-foot lane widths “are acceptable and common all over Florida.” He said the minimum acceptable width is 10 feet, which is the width of the inside traffic lane being proposed on West Bay.
More landscaped medians and pedestrian islands are planned. “There are several opportunities for mid-block crossings” on the roadway stretches covered, which is West Bay Drive from Clearwater-Largo Drive to the Causeway Bridge, Blanton said.
The work would be done in connection with a planned resurfacing of West Bay, which Blanton said is currently on hold until a decision is made on the roadway changes.
Blanton said the Complete Streets plan would, in addition to making West Bay Drive safer for pedestrians and bicyclers, create “a sense of place,” making the area “a destination” instead of a drive-through.
Narrowing lanes opposed
But commission members and residents remained skeptical, especially of the benefits of the narrowed traffic lanes.
“This is a huge project that will change everything and we have to get it right,” said Mayor Chris Arbutine.
Commissioner Suzy Sofer said she had concerns about large vehicles on narrowed traffic lanes. “We have oversized boat trailers, landscaping trailers and lawn equipment,” she said. “We have boats being taken to the boat ramp here. And we’re trimming down these lanes and tying it to the concept of safety. I’m asking, ‘Does this create a bigger unsafe situation for the area?’”
Another big concern, Sofer said, is continuing the traffic flow. “We don’t want it to back up, so people in Belleair Beach are not able to get home.”
“I see a really tremendous traffic situation happening,” Sofer said. She said before she approves any concept being proposed for changes on West Bay Drive, “There are many questions that we need answered.”
Commissioner Taylour Shimkus said she is concerned for the residents, “who have a large stake in this,” as well as the businesses.
“I’ve heard from a ton of residents, as well as business owners, who are not in favor of this,” Shimkus said.
In Belleair Bluffs, “we have boat ramps, we have trucks, we have SUVs,” Shimkus said. “This is a beautiful concept, but it’s not the reality of the area we live in.”
Shimkus said she also believes people will be confused by having one traffic lane narrower than the other.
“How are people going to know they can only drive in the right lane if they have a big car or truck or oversized vehicle?” Shimkus said.
Commissioner Joseph Barkley said, “We want to do this in a way that accommodates the needs of the people in Belleair Bluffs, as well as Largo, Belleair and out on the beaches.”
Wrapping up the commissioners’ comments, Mayor Arbutine told Blanton, “You’ve heard what we’re saying, ‘We need a wide road, we don’t want a narrow road.’ These are things we have to have.”
The mayor also said he has lived in Belleair Bluffs all his life, and “I’ve seen West Bay Drive when it was two lanes. I love it now, and I don’t want to screw it up.”
Residents at the meeting also spoke out, opposing the narrower traffic lanes.
Jeff Moakley, a Largo resident, said the landscaped medians should be eliminated so the traffic lane widths can remain unchanged.
“We need 12-foot lanes,” Moakley said. “Eliminate at least one of the (landscaped) medians, if not all three.” Also, “Bikes don’t belong on West Bay,” he said.
“Traffic speed is not a problem,” Moakley said, and if it is, police enforcement, not narrower lanes, is the answer.
Bluffs resident Darlene Kavanagh said West Bay Drive is a thoroughfare road, and people use it to get from Point A to Point B. Countering Blanton’s comment that many motorists drive in excess of 50 mph, Kavanagh said, “I’m lucky to reach 25 miles per hour sometimes.”
“I don’t see speeding as a problem” on West Bay Drive, Kavanagh said.
Arbutine suggested a special workshop meeting, with local business owners and other interested parties present, where the county would come back with options that could be discussed before proceeding with a final design. He said, “We need things like car counts, and why it makes sense to do what you’re proposing.”
Blanton said he would “be happy” to meet further with the city and business owners to try to resolve the issues and concerns about the Complete Streets program.
But time is running out, Blanton warned. The county wants to get on with the road resurfacing project, which will be done in connection with the proposed road changes.
“We need to get some resolution of this in the next two to three months, and by mid-March we would like to have some direction,” Blanton said.
The next step in the process for the county will be an engineering design study.