Pinellas County is Florida's second-smallest but most densely populated county, and it has the additional distinction of being one of the most oddly configured: 38 miles long, 15 miles wide, and surrounded by water on three sides.
This makes for some interesting transportation challenges.
Where the peninsula is most narrow, the workhorses of north-south traffic are two six-lane arterial highways running parallel to each other at just 1.3 miles apart. One is a state-maintained highway (U.S. Highway 19) and the other is county-maintained McMullen Booth Road.
Since the early 1990s, U.S. Hwy 19 has been undergoing a transformation by means of an ambitious Florida DOT project to build controlled-access elevated mainline bridge structures—also known as flyovers—at five major intersections. The structures allow through traffic to travel without stopping for traffic-control devices.
To date, four flyovers have been built; two are under construction. During construction, traffic is restricted to two through lanes in each direction and is frequently rerouted depending on the stage of construction.
The result? You guessed it: motorist confusion and a heavier-than-normal burden on the county road.
To complicate matters, since 1998 CSX Transportation Inc. (CSXT), which operates the largest railroad in the eastern United States, has been implementing an extensive rail bed maintenance and improvement program. Fifteen key public railroad-highway grade crossings in the county were targeted for systematic maintenance: replacement of ballast, rotted rail ties, damaged or undersized rails, and laser leveling of the track along the entire rail line. Wherever the roadway crossings of the rail corridor occurred, the entire roadway crossing would have to be fully closed.
In the fall of 2000, CSXT announced that one such grade crossing improvement project would occur on McMullen Booth Road less than 1,000 feet south of the intersection of another road whose parallel intersection at U.S. Hwy 19 was under fly-over construction. The improvements would require the railroad crossing to be closed for an entire month.
Because of concerns about traffic volumes and the fact that the primary detour route was in itself compromised because of a construction project, CSXT postponed the improvements and focused on eight smaller, lesser-traveled crossings instead.
Unfortunately, the reprieve was short-lived. Pressure to replace the grade crossing on McMullen Booth Road mounted when the crossing failed twice in 14 months, requiring emergency repairs and partial road closures. Finally, in 2006 CSXT determined that the condition of the crossing posed a threat to rail traffic and the McMullen Booth Road improvement project began.