Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Accident closes Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard at U.S. 19, possibly for days

CLEARWATER — Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in both directions around the U.S. 19 intersection was completely shut down Tuesday afternoon after two semitrailer trucks hit a sagging girder on an overpass scheduled for demolition. Motorists were advised to avoid the area, and major traffic delays — perhaps for a few days — were expected.

No one was injured and the trucks sustained only minor damage in the incident, which occurred about 12:45 p.m.

"It may possibly be a couple of days. We just don't know yet," said Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kris Carson. "The truck hit an inside girder. It's not easy to get to and remove."

News that her commute might be significantly lengthened left Lynn Hlawitschka resigned to some frustration in the days ahead.

The 47-year-old Trinity resident normally drives for about an hour to work at an insurance processing firm just west of the damaged intersection. She expects an additional 30 minutes or so each way until it gets fixed.

Like many others, Hlawitschka plans to use Drew Street, which parallels Gulf-to-Bay on the north and has two lanes in each direction, as an alternative. But hours before leaving, she predicted her drive home would test her nerves.

"Drew Street is going to be crazy," she said.

Drivers trying to move east-west to the south of Gulf-to-Bay don't have any better options. Druid, Nursery and Belleair roads are all one lane in each direction. The next major thoroughfare is East Bay Drive/Roosevelt Boulevard. Businesses caught between detours on Old Coachman Road on the west and Park Place Boulevard on the eastern side of the intersection said the next few days would be tough.

"I'll have to run a shorter staff," said Nick Apostolu, a manager at a Wendy's restaurant just west of the intersection. "Most of our customers are going to the beach. If it's warm and sunny outside, this place is packed.''

At Leader's Casual Furniture, store manager Amy Jo Jones, when informed of the reason she had been watching eastbound traffic pile up outside her window while the westbound lanes were eerily empty, said: "That explains why no one is coming in." Customers over the next few days might be considerably rarer than the usual busy flow, she said.

Engineers and construction staff are assessing the situation to determine how to remove the girder. The steel girder estimated to weigh 70 tons that was part of the old bridge at that location is hanging down and needs to be removed, said Clearwater spokeswoman Joelle Castelli.

DOT cranes working on U.S. 19 south of the overpass will have to be disassembled and brought to the site. The low-hanging girders will make the job harder as the cranes will lose leverage, said Kent Watts, special operations chief for Clearwater Fire and Rescue.

Watts said he didn't think the job could be done in much less than 48 hours as all four girders underpinning the old overpass will have to be removed.

A new four-lane overpass recently opened for southbound traffic on U.S. 19 over Gulf-to-Bay. For now, it's carrying traffic in both directions. The old northbound Gulf-to-Bay overpass, which is lower than the gleaming new southbound side, will be demolished soon to make way for construction of a new four-lane northbound span, slated to be completed by next March.

Karma Baijnauth, the driver of the second semitrailer, said once he hit the sagging girder, he decided to push on through. "I was wondering what was going on. I drive through here every day. I thought, 'I'm not stopping, I'm just going through and they'll figure it out,' " said Baijnauth, who works for Five Star Trucking.

Times staff writer Will Hicks contributed to this report.

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