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Connector opens a new gateway across county

County Road 296 is expected to open in September and give Pinellas another cross-county route.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002


It will be another six weeks before the link between Bryan Dairy Road and 118th Avenue N opens to traffic, providing motorists a straight shot across the center of the Pinellas peninsula.

But considering the plan for the new east-west corridor has been on the books for 30 years, what's another 45 days?

The route, called County Road 296, connects 102nd Avenue N, Bryan Dairy Road and 118th Avenue N, giving residents of Seminole, Pinellas Park, Largo and other communities a direct route to U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, the county's major north-south routes.

"It's not that often in the county these days that you open up a whole new road segment that makes such a significant difference," said county planning director Brian Smith.

The good news is the 6-lane missing link -- 2 miles of pavement free of traffic lights -- will open in September, giving commuters another route between the Intracoastal Waterway and Interstate 275 and taking pressure off busy Ulmerton Road and Park Boulevard. Bryan Dairy now dead ends at 66th Street and motorists have to head south to Park Boulevard or north to Ulmerton Road.

The bad news is only one ramp on to the interstate -- the one that funnels traffic from eastbound 118th Avenue to southbound I-275 -- will open in September. The ramps that move traffic from eastbound 118th Avenue to northbound I-275 and from southbound I-275 on to westbound 118th Avenue won't open until the middle to later part of next year. Until then, motorists can take a detour -- Ulmerton Road, 28th Street N and Roosevelt Boulevard -- to enter or leave the interstate.

Mark Neuenschwander, who lives near Hamlin Boulevard in western Pinellas and often drives across the county, says he's looking forward to the day when the missing link opens.

"So far that route hasn't been very beneficial," he said. But now that the connection finally will open, Neuenschwander says he'll use the east-west corridor to save time to get to U.S. 19 or to southbound I-275.

Okay, so it will be a while before the interchange at 118th Avenue will provide access in all directions. But the hassle of a quick detour seems worth it, considering these details:

According to 2000 traffic data, an average of 86,000 automobiles drove on Ulmerton Road on a daily basis. The count was taken on Ulmerton south of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. Officials also said an average of 43,000 autos traveled daily on Park Boulevard. That count was taken just east of U.S. 19.

There are 23 signal lights on both Park Boulevard and Ulmerton Road from the gulf to the interstate. CR 296 has 16 stop lights, with only four east of 66th Street.

Most of the corridor is six lanes with 45 mph speed limits.

It won't be the limited access expressway former County Commissioner John Chesnut once envisioned. But the passageway is expected to relieve some traffic on Ulmerton Road and Park Boulevard.

The future of the road looked bright in 1994, when one crucial section -- the Lake Seminole Bridge -- opened for business. Other pieces of the puzzle were expected to follow right behind.

But the county's road-building plans slowed considerably in the mid 1990s because of funding shortages, delaying the missing link in the corridor and putting off a widening planned in another area.

The widening of 102nd Avenue N, which is the western end of the CR 296 corridor, was delayed again last year when the county discovered it would receive less than expected revenue from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax. Now the plan calls for creating a four-lane road there in 2007.

Seminole city officials worry about the additional traffic the new corridor will bring to the already congested 102nd Avenue. "Yeah, it's a congestion point right now," Pinellas County Public Works Director Keith Wicks acknowledged. "We've worked out priorities and availabilities of funds to the best of our ability and that's the soonest we can do it."

The county project extending Bryan Dairy Road from 66th Street to U.S. 19, which included building an overpass over 66th Street and replacing the pedestrian bridge at 62nd Street, started nearly two years ago. The $27.8-million job even involved moving the Cross Bayou Canal, Wicks said.

The state's interchange project at the east end of the new corridor costs $21-million.

The ramps that will funnel traffic from eastbound 118th Avenue to northbound I-275 and from southbound I-275 onto westbound 118th Avenue cannot open until next year because they depend on a separate project, said John McShaffrey, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Transportation. In May, workers began a two-year project that will widen I-275 from Roosevelt Boulevard to near the Fourth Street interchange. The interstate needs the additional lanes to accommodate the new interchange. "We knew we were building ramps to nowhere until this work was completed," McShaffrey said.

Eventually, the portion of Roosevelt Boulevard north of Ulmerton near the airport will become an expressway that will hook up with CR 296, linking the Bayside Bridge to the interstate. That project is about a decade away, though.

McShaffrey says he understands motorists' frustrations with all the different projects under way. But he says they have to be done in phases because of financial and contractors' restraints.

"It's a big-picture kind of thing," he said. "The combination of all this work will give them more alternatives."

Not a bad thing in crowded Pinellas County.

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