CLEARWATER — Commuters may experience an odd sensation today on this busy section of U.S. 19 — fast movement.
Running about a month behind schedule, contractors late Thursday finally planned to move traffic off of cramped service roads onto the main highway that’s been under construction since 2009.
That means two lanes in each direction will have a free flow of traffic with no stoplights or delays through the entire 2.5-mile work area from Whitney Road to State Road 60.
In fact, there’s now a 12-mile stretch of the highway from Pinellas Park to north Clearwater with no lights, allowing through traffic to zip north and south, using on and off ramps to access side streets and businesses along the way.
The job isn’t completely finished.
Crews from Hubbard Construction have until spring to open up a third lane in both directions, finish work around bridges over major intersections such as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, and lay down a final layer of asphalt.
“There will be lots of cheers in Pinellas County that this job is finally wrapping up,” said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
❖ ❖ ❖
In January, Gov. Rick Scott promised an extra $4.8 million to accelerate the job that began in 2009 and was slated to be finished by late 2015.
Under the fast-tracked schedule, contractors were supposed to have traffic moving on the main highway in both directions by Oct. 16, with the entire job finished by mid-March 2015.
Since missing that deadline, Hubbard Construction had been losing $41,666 every day in bonus money set aside for extra crews to work day and night until the work is completed.
An exceptionally rainy September and equipment troubles slowed them down, but DOT officials still are pushing for workers to hit the last deadline.
The contract is scheduled to run through April, though completing all the work may take a few extra months, Carson said.
“But we are still pushing them hard to substantially wrap up the project by March of next year,” she said.
Carson emphasized that the project as a whole isn’t late and originally was slated to be finished in late 2015 before the additional money pushed that date up by about six months into the spring.
The original contract was for $109.5 million. That price tag has since gone to $118.5 million, though the final cost is expected to drop by $1.25 million due to the contractor missing the October deadline, she said.
❖ ❖ ❖
The project has appeared to drag on endlessly for motorists and businesses along this busy corridor.
It took two years simply to lay down new utilities followed by the construction of the frontage roads alongside the highway and then the closure of the main highway as crews expanded the road and built bridges over key intersections, eliminating the need for traffic lights.
A separate but concurrent project to the north also has harried businesses near the intersection of U.S. 19 and Enterprise Road, where one-way service roads are being built along the highway to connect existing frontage roads from Sunset Point Road to Countryside Boulevard.
That $17 million project is expected to be finished in the spring.
The DOT has been working on projects like the one in Clearwater all along U.S. 19 in the Tampa Bay region, adding frontage roads and taking out street lights, to account for increasing levels of traffic and congestion.
The broader U.S. 19 expansion projects include Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.