Enhancing Beach Community Access in Pinellas County

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Belleair Causeway looking east toward Belleair Bluffs. The bridge is popular for walkers, joggers and bicyclists. In peak season it experiences congestion resulting from traffic related to Clearwater Beach.

Pinellas County is defined by its geography. Water on three sides, inland lakes and
numerous bays, inlets, canals and wetlands make for a compact place to put people, commerce, industry and the transportation networks to serve them. One aspect of that geography, the Gulf of Mexico and its outstanding beaches, has remained a constant over the years, defining Pinellas County as a vacation destination for millions worldwide. They come for the day, the week, the month or the season, making tourism a primary economic engine not only for the county and its communities, but for the Tampa Bay region and the state of Florida. The continued growth of tourism and market demands place pressure on a constrained geography with limited development and transportation options. Its impacts threaten the sustainability and character of our county as well as residential neighborhoods in the communities along those beaches.

The February 18th Community Advocacy Meeting of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce at the Madeira Beach Rec Center from 9-10 AM will feature a discussion of enhancing beach access, with input from area businesses.

Decades-ago decisions set a development pattern in Pinellas County that largely has not kept up with population and market changes. While other counties can grow outward to offer new development choices, Pinellas needs to redevelop and retrofit to meet the needs of its residents, visitors and a changing workforce.  That situation largely accounts for the big population, housing and workforce differences between Pinellas and Hillsborough County, as highlighted in a recent story by the Tampa Bay Times.

The Pinellas Planning Council and Metropolitan Planning Organization (PPC/MPO) is the planning agency given the responsibility of ensuring Pinellas County and its 24 municipalities make wise decisions about land use and transportation. Those decisions must address today’s needs while keeping in mind the values and long-term vision for what makes Pinellas unique. The PPC is responsible for a countywide land use plan, and the MPO has responsibility for a countywide long range transportation plan, and also sets priorities for spending federal transportation funds on projects in the county. Through a partnership with the MPOs in Hillsborough and Pasco County, and the Florida Department of Transportation, the Pinellas MPO also plays a role in shaping transportation serving the Tampa Bay region. In 2014, the PPC and MPO merged as an independent agency under a single governing board of 13 elected officials representing Pinellas County and its 24 cities.

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Mike Crawford, Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy and Whit Blanton

Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy, City Commissioner of Indian Rocks Beach, serves as the 10 beach communities’ representative on the PPC/MPO. An executive director and about 20 professional staff provide a wide range of land use and transportation services for the county and region.

In December 2015, the PPC/MPO Board established “SPOTlight Pinellas,” a two-year focus on strategic planning and operations topics affecting multiple jurisdictions. The Board chose Enhancing Beach Access as one of three emphasis areas (along with US 19 and Gateway/Mid-County area) to develop solutions for critical land use and transportation needs in the county. Enhancing Beach Access will focus on addressing traffic congestion, improving safety for people on foot, on bikes and in cars, and ensuring that redevelopment occurs in a way that fits with transportation options, supports each community’s goals, and sustains our fragile environment.

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Pedestrians crossing Gulf Boulevard in Treasure Island

Whether it’s being stuck in traffic on SR 60 and Memorial Causeway going to Clearwater Beach, speeding on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach, infrequent transit service or substandard facilities for bicyclists or pedestrians, there are a wide range of needs along our beach communities. Enhancing Beach Access will focus on east-west transportation solutions to better connect workers, visitors and residents with places elsewhere in our county and region, and how transportation and redevelopment work together within our beach communities themselves. Guiding appropriately-scaled, mixed-use redevelopment that supports walking, bicycling and use of transit is part of the strategy to address congestion and safety.

The PPC/MPO is beginning to meet with business owners, residents and public agency staff to define the issues and opportunities for improved mobility and access to and along our beach communities. One of these initial meetings will be with the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce at its Community Advocacy Meeting on February 18th. Analysis will examine ways to reduce crashes and their severity, give people more travel options, and use the road network we have more efficiently. Over the next several months, there will be many opportunities to take part in this planning process. You can follow updates by contacting the Pinellas MPO at http://www.pinellascounty.org/mpo/MPOCommit.htm.

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