WESLEY CHAPEL — First came the new rest stops. Then widening both stretches of highway by another lane. A maze of flashing orange traffic cones cropped up like cornstalks and never went away. More than two years ago, the 3.6-mile slab of interstate between state roads 54 and 56 became a terrifying traffic funhouse, and there's hardly an end in sight.
The Florida Department of Transportation made a deal with Better Roads Inc. that gave the contractor 565 days to finish widening the lanes, said DOT district spokesman John McShaffrey. Then the usual and legitimate hang-ups presented themselves. DOT granted the contractor 270 extra days to work on the road because of weather, holidays, added work and design changes. With delays, the construction was slated to be finished by Nov. 10.
Better Roads did not return calls for comment. But McShaffrey offered an explanation: "We can point toward really a lack of production and work effort."
Better Roads has since been taken off the bid list for any future transportation projects by the state. DOT is fining the company $5,809.88 for every day past deadline the construction is not complete. Today marks the 163rd past Better Roads' deadline, which translates to $947,010.44 the contractor will have to pay.
McShaffrey said DOT expects more delays on the project with seasonal cold fronts blowing into the area. Workers are in the paving phase of construction and if the weather gets too cold, they won't be able to put down the top layer of asphalt, he said.
Better Roads hasn't indicated when the project will be finished, McShaffrey said. He guessed sometime in spring 2014.
"I wouldn't even begin to say what month," he said.
Regular commuters have probably seen their share of close calls navigating through the $23.7 million widening project, most of which came from federal money.
In January 2012, a man died when he was ejected from his car when it rolled into a median. That July, a car crossed the median and split in two when it hit two other oncoming vehicles. Last month, six people were injured when a BMW careened into two cars on the shoulder.
A look at the numbers, though, shows construction has not made the area discernibly more crash-prone than it was.
The stretch of road saw 72 crashes in 2009 and 24 crashes in 2010, according to Florida Highway Patrol statistics. In 2011, when construction began, there were 73 crashes and 75 crashes in 2012. This year saw 78 crashes.
The next interstate widening project from S.R. 54 north to S.R. 52 is set to begin in spring 2014. Over the next few years, McShaffrey said, DOT plans to widen the lanes from the turnpike cutoff in Wildwood to the I-275 split in Wesley Chapel.
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A story in the Dec. 18 Pasco Times misidentified the next planned lane-widening project on Interstate 75. The Florida Department of Transportation will start work on the interstate stretch from S.R. 54 to S.R. 52 in the spring. The article also mis-reported the date financial penalties began for Better Roads Inc., which was July 15. The total amount of the fine, as of today , is $947,010.44.