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Contractor eager to open SR 56

The road can be opened in February without a top coat, the highway contractor says. The DOT wants to complete paving and open in April as planned.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002


LAND O'LAKES -- The man who's building State Road 56 says he could open the eagerly awaited highway by early February -- if the state Department of Transportation would let him.

"I told them we could have it open in 2 1/2 weeks," said Sam Todd, project manager for Archer Western Contractors Ltd.

But as residents of Wesley Chapel and Land O'Lakes clamor for SR 56 to ease their morning and afternoon commutes, DOT officials are sticking to their estimated April completion date for the 3-mile highway.

Todd's solution is for DOT to let drivers use at least one lane in each direction while crews apply a missing top coat of asphalt on the other lanes.

"At this time we are not contemplating that," said Joy Lukcic, the engineer managing the job for DOT. "We don't want to introduce traffic to the construction zone."

As of Friday afternoon, SR 56 was almost ready to rumble with traffic between Cypress Creek, Interstate 75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

It's missing a few guard rails. Isolated patches of right of way lack sod. But the highway's four to six lanes are smooth enough to drive, despite missing yellow and white stripes.

What's holding up the project is the absence of the so-called "friction course." That's the rubberized, porous asphalt top coat that helps the road repel rainwater.

Lukcic said cars would have little trouble negotiating the highway without the friction course. But she said the DOT typically prefers not to open its highways before it completes paving.

Officials with the Suncoast Parkway saw things differently.

When the three-county toll road opened in February, two sections of the highway, in northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties, still lacked friction courses.

"We opened it to get it in public service as soon as possible," Suncoast Parkway spokeswoman Joanne Hurley said.

Todd's suggestion to open SR 56 early, which he floated to DOT officials this week, is partly self protective.

As of Jan. 2, DOT has assessed his firm $10,252.71 in fines per day, a blow to a company that prides itself on its reliability rating over the course of at least a decade of work in Florida.

The original completion date of SR 56, construction on which started in June 1999, was June 2001. Later, DOT pushed the opening date to November, then to February and finally to April.

DOT said Archer Western was fined only after it exhausted two time extensions: 97 days for "unforeseen circumstances" and 99 days for bad weather.

Pushing the job back to April was necessitated by winter temperatures that stymie the laying of asphalt. Contractors have trouble spreading the material when the temperature is below 65 degrees.

Lukcic couldn't point to any one problem that pushed Archer Western over schedule, saying it was a "culmination of things" on a "very complex job" that includes a new interchange at Interstate 75.

DOT was more specific in a Nov. 20 letter to Archer Western from Lukcic's boss, Jim Moulton. The letter listed 21 problems with the contractor's work up to that point, including mistakes in building the concrete and steel bridge over I-75.

Moulton said in the letter that "Archer Western project staff has indicated a position that they will disregard the specifications in order to get the project completed sooner."

The contractor has not responded to the letter yet.

Questions also remain about the DOT's original engineering plan for the highway. DOT has asked for 30 revisions to the plans in the course of construction, a number Lukcic described as "pretty average."

In many cases, the changes were minor, including adding driveway cuts in anticipation of future development along the highway.

"This is a major construction project," she said. "It's not unusual to have contract changes in contracts of this size."

-- Staff writer James Thorner covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or thorner@sptimes.com.

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