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    Money to change shape of U.S. 19

    Millions in projects to improve a highway notorious for fatal crashes will create new overpasses, turn lanes - and traffic delays.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 2, 2001


    Fifty million here. Fifty million there. Perhaps another $20-million on the way.

    The promises of money for improvements to U.S. 19 seem to be coming faster than a Porscheweaving through traffic.

    But when it comes to actual work, think of an old clunker creeping along with a blinker flashing, searching for an address.

    Have patience, county officials say. All this money pouring into U.S. 19 soon is going to clog the road with so much construction drivers may be wishing for the old days. On tap over the next five years will be four new overpasses and address signs every quarter-mile. And in north Pinellas County, there will be right-turn lanes, sidewalks and one-way medians instead of the existing mid road free-for-all.

    The following is a rundown of what drivers will get, and when.

    Drew Street overpass comes first

    First up is an overpass at Drew Street. Ken Hartmann, state Department of Transportation District 7 secretary, said contractors already have submitted bids and work should begin this fall.

    Next year, construction is scheduled to begin on overpasses for Coachman and Sunset Point roads.

    Each of the three overpasses is expected to take 2 1/2 to three years to complete. The funding for these overpasses -- $68.4-million for Drew, $44-million each for Coachman and Sunset Point -- already had been budgeted before it was announced that $100-million in state and federal funds would be devoted to the highway.

    The additional money allowed the Metropolitan Planning Organization to add another overpass to the five-year plan. The two options: Enterprise Road or 118th Avenue.

    It was tempting to opt for Enterprise, said county planning director Brian Smith, because that would have extended the limited access highway created with the overpass projects already in the works.

    But two weeks ago, the Metropolitan Planning Organization opted for the 118th Avenue overpass instead, tying it in to plans for an east-west extension that will connect Bryan Dairy Road to 118th Avenue all the way to I-275. The cost of the 118th Avenue overpass is projected at $50-million to $60-million.

    The five-year plan does budget $4-million for the design of the Enterprise Road overpass, even though funding does not now exist for the project. County Commissioner Karen Seel, who heads the U.S. 19 task force, said designing the road will make it easier to make a pitch to legislators for funds to build it in the near future.

    Short-term projects in North Pinellas

    In North Pinellas, where plans for overpasses are not even on the 20-year plan, shorter-term projects will soon be under way to improve safety.

    As early as this fall, construction is expected to begin to "channelize" the medians from Sunset Point Road all the way north to the Pasco County line. The changes will essentially make the medians one-way, instead of allowing for cars in both directions to turn anywhere.

    Early next year, construction will begin on continuous right turn lanes in both directions between Republic Drive and Tarpon Avenue. And in 2002-2003, construction will begin on sidewalks from Tarpon Avenue to the Pasco County line.

    "If we continue on this trail, in the next 10 years U.S. 19 won't be regarded as the problem child it is," said Alan C. Bomstein, a member of the task force and head of Creative Contractors.

    It is sometimes difficult for drivers to appreciate the progress, he said, because road projects take years to fund, design and build.

    "The world of road building is slow," Bomstein said. "You muddle through it and hope you live long enough to see the fruits of the labor."

    Bomstein is encouraged by the recent funding commitments.

    "The big thing is that the message is getting across," Bomstein said.

    And it helps, he said, that U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, is head of the appropriations committee and has been able to steer money toward the project.

    "It needed someone like Bill Young to be in the position he's in to make this happen," Bomstein said.

    Other short-term U.S. 19 fixes suggested by the task force will also be making their debuts, Seel said. Signs every quarter-mile will help drivers find businesses with addresses that are hard to see. Buses that make frequent stops will soon have flashing blinkers to gain attention.

    "A lot of people thought there was nothing you could do with U.S. 19, so why have a task force?" Smith said. "But we learned there are a lot of things that could be looked at and could be done without spending a lot of money."

    Seel said the task force came up with a list of short-term, relatively low-cost improvements because "we thought long-term funding was way down the road."

    Commissioner hopes for more

    Seel said the recent windfalls have her hungry for more. She hopes county leaders will be able to secure enough funding to build the Enterprise Road overpass as well as to make major improvements between State Road 60 and Haines Road in the next 10 years.

    Seel said it is clear the highway has become a funding priority. She credits that to the county creating a firm plan that carries widespread community support.

    "All you have to do is look at the number of fatalities," Seel said. "It is just a very unsafe road."

    Smith said the extra funding has enabled the county to accelerate the long-range plans for U.S. 19.

    "The downside is that drivers will be dealing with a lot of construction over the next five years," Smith said. "I think people are willing to put up with that, knowing these improvements are going to happen."

    Hartmann said the DOT plans to hold a public meeting, perhaps later this month, to give residents an overview of the upcoming work and plans for U.S. 19.

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