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I-275, U.S. 19 connector road gains urgency

The 118th Avenue connector to U.S. 19 would create an uninterrupted flow from the Sunshine Skyway to State Road 580 in the Dunedin-Safety Harbor area.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

The 118th Avenue connector to U.S. 19 would create an uninterrupted flow from the Sunshine Skyway to State Road 580 in the Dunedin-Safety Harbor area.

It would ease traffic congestion on one of Pinellas County's busiest corridors and shorten the commute from Dunedin to St. Petersburg.

Political heavyweights across the state support it, from the governor to the mayor of St. Petersburg to the head of the state Department of Transportation.

Yet a proposed highway extension connecting Interstate 275 and U.S. 19 has been stalled for eight years.

The holdup? The price tag.

The 2-mile highway extension would cost $187-million. That's on top of the $499-million state officials have set aside for ongoing U.S. 19 improvements.

But local leaders are pushing harder than ever to get the project funded as the DOT holds meetings this month to decide how to dole out local transportation dollars.

"There is a real sense of urgency," said County Commissioner Karen Seel. "We want to make sure ... that we get this project under way so that it all comes together.''

Pinellas County is ready to chip in $70-million in local money, and about $21-million in state and federal dollars have been earmarked for the project. But without $96-million in state money, the road could remain just a dream.

The 118th Avenue connector would create an uninterrupted flow of traffic from the Sunshine Skyway to State Road 580 in the Dunedin-Safety Harbor area. The east-west connector parallel to Ulmerton would link U.S. 19 to 43rd Street N and connect to a limited-access highway already planned along 118th Avenue to I-275.

"This is the most significant project our county has done in 50 years," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker. "It will help bring the whole county together, not just physically, but it will bring the county together as a community. It will change the way people look at things."

At least half of the projected $187-million cost would go toward purchasing land along 118th Avenue. Officials estimate they might be able to knock $10-million off the final price depending on the design they settle on.

Without a highway linking north and south Pinellas County, the area has long been geographically divided. That division has strained the few corridors that do link the county, officials say.

"There has always been the understanding that Ulmerton Road and Park Boulevard can't provide all the capacity needed," said Sarah Ward, a transportation planning administrator with the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Baker first pitched the highway extension as chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce in 2000. He found an ally in Seel, a longtime transportation advocate.

Other local leaders eventually jumped on board. The MPO promoted the project from its 22nd priority to its second in 2005.

Gov. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg native, signed off on the project last year after meeting with Baker.

"When the governor is supporting this, it should help," Baker said.

But DOT officials say they don't know whether they will be able to fund the project this year. The DOT will host two revenue conferences this month and two public hearings on future projects in December.

"We have to look at what funding we have and decide how much we can fund that project," said Marian Scorza, a DOT spokeswoman in Tampa.

If the U.S. 19 connector gets the green light, the road could open as early as 2014. If the project is stalled another year, officials worry that rising costs will make funding it more difficult.

"This is the missing link that local officials have been hoping for and waiting for for a long time," said R.B. Johnson, chairman of the Pinellas County Transit Authority board and mayor of Indian Rocks Beach. "The longer you wait, the more expensive things are. The price tag always goes up. It never goes down in these projects."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

I-275, U.S. 19 connector road gains urgency 11/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 9, 2008 11:30am]
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