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    Connecting dots to uncork traffic

    Road improvements will unclog east-west and north-south routes in central Pinellas and connect to freeways by the end of the decade.

    By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 2, 2003


    photo
    [Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
    A new connector to I-275 will go through the Sunshine Speedway's present site.
    CLEARWATER -- The official vision for Pinellas County's traffic future includes a signal-free route from the Bayside Bridge to Orlando and a nearly hassle-free trip for Hillsborough residents to the gulf beaches.

    And it isn't a dream.

    State and county road officials say most of it will be a reality by the end of the decade.

    The money is there or will be there. Right of way issues are near resolution. The ambitious plan is aimed at helping fix a county road system that was overwhelmed by traffic volume years ago.

    Gone will be the agony of Ulmerton Road.

    Gone will be the congestion at the south end of the Bayside Bridge.

    Gone will be the hassle of making the transition from eastbound Roosevelt Boulevard to eastbound Ulmerton during the morning rush hours.

    Replacing the current traffic pains will be a signal-free expressway from the Bayside Bridge to the new Roosevelt interchange with Interstate 275, extensive improvements to Ulmerton Road from Oakhurst Road on the west side of the county to the interstate on the east, and a U.S. 19 overpass where Bryan Dairy Road becomes 118th Avenue.

    There might even be a reconstruction of 118th Avenue east of U.S. 19 to turn it into an expressway.

    Also under way are studies on turning Gandy Boulevard into an expressway between U.S. 19 and the Gandy Bridge with a massive interchange that would sail over traffic signals at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fourth streets N.

    "We are taking a systemwide approach," said Bob Clifford, regional planning manager for the Florida Department of Transportation. "The individual projects are all tied together."

    The price tag -- not taking into account the potential for the Gandy and 118th Avenue expressways -- is estimated in excess of a half-billion dollars in federal, state and county contributions.

    One key piece of the puzzle fell into place last month when President Bush signed a spending bill that contained $10-million for the purchase of the Sunshine Speedway. That parcel, stretching from the south side of Ulmerton Road to 118th Avenue, is key to building the new connector between the Bayside Bridge and I-275.

    The total cost of the purchase is $20-million. The remaining half of the money will come either from the federal government next year or from Pinellas County, said County Commissioner Karen Seel, who has played a lead role in bringing the project together.

    Those all too familiar with the mishmash that has been Pinellas traffic for so many years -- no easy way to go north-south or east-west, no trip to gulf beaches or fishing without negotiating endless traffic jams -- already have begun to see some improvement.

    Last year, a county-state project extended Bryan Dairy Road to link with 118th Avenue and then with the new interstate interchange at Roosevelt. Three legs of the interchange already are open, from Tampa to westbound 118th and from 118th to both the northbound and southbound interstate.

    The link from the interstate to westbound 118th is still a few years away.

    But it's a start.

    The bridge-interstate connector will look something like this:

    Signal-free ramps will carry cars to and from the Bayside Bridge, over the current intersection at Roosevelt. Local traffic turning onto the bridge from eastbound and westbound Roosevelt will have two turn lanes where there is now one.

    Through traffic on Roosevelt will have an overpass at the entrance to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. There will be another overpass at Ulmerton leading to the new highway that will run north-south through the speedway property.

    An overpass will carry traffic from the new segment of highway onto 118th Avenue, and a new ramp to the interstate will avoid the traffic signal where the entrance ramp begins today.

    There will be frontage roads along the length of the new expressway to accommodate airport and local traffic.

    About 40 percent of the 120-acre speedway property will be needed for the new road. The rest would be used by the airport for rental car parking, remote parking, a facility for light rail and high speed rail if those systems are built, and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses. A shuttle would run to the airport.

    "We need one center to accommodate everything," said Frank Aiello, the airport's engineer. "We put rental cars out there, which increases airport parking. We get more traffic coming past the airport and make it easier to get into and out of the property.

    "Potentially, you're looking at the springboard for the redevelopment of this whole area of the county, from Feather Sound to ICOT. You begin to think of the airport as the focal point for all transportation in the county."

    The improvements to Ulmerton Road, scheduled to begin next year, will turn it into a six-lane highway from Oakhurst to the interstate, including improvements to the relatively new road construction between 34th Street and I-275.

    The so-called Miracle Mile segment, from 49th to 34th Street, will be flanked on both sides by continuous right-turn lanes to accommodate the myriad driveways.

    Clifford said the work would progress from west to east.

    The U.S. 19 overpass at Bryan Dairy/118th Avenue will be completed in the next five years, he said. It is one part of the effort to turn U.S. 19 into a signal-free north-south route the length of the county.

    The cost of land has slowed that effort, but a U.S. 19 overpass is under construction at Drew Street.

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