CLEARWATER — Just when you thought it was getting easier to drive on U.S. 19 again …
The state will use federal stimulus money to kick-start more construction on U.S. 19, including a total replacement of the overpass at Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.
A 2.7-mile stretch of the highway — one of the area's busiest arteries with 75,000 to 95,000 motorists a day — will become mostly elevated, with new overpasses and an expansion to six lanes from its current four at Gulf-to-Bay.
Construction will start in September and take five years to complete. Motorists probably won't notice a big difference until after the start of the new year, because early work will mostly involve utility crews.
On the books since 1990, the project was delayed several times, broken into parts but finally launched this year with President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package. Nearly $45 million in federal funding will help pay for the project, which is expected to cost more than $220 million to design and build.
Keeping cars and trucks from clogging up will mean shifting drivers to parts of the bridge that aren't being replaced, and then to the new portion. Vehicles also will be detoured to frontage roads.
The existing overpass already makes space tight there, where shoppers and commuters converge near Clearwater Mall.
"It's a challenge, but it can be done," said Don Skelton, district secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
But news of the overpass replacement — instead of only an expansion — had missed Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who initially worried that replacing the bridge would cause a traffic nightmare.
Replacement is necessary so U-turn lanes can fit, and the bridge can reach a higher elevation, said Skelton, adding that it has been in the plans for years.
Hibbard later said he wasn't worried after receiving promises from project officials that traffic would be handled adequately.
Motorists have faced major overpass construction at other U.S. 19 junctures before. In fact, different parts of U.S. 19 have been undergoing some sort of renovation for more than two decades.
"We're finally getting close to what we should have had 30 years ago," Hibbard said.
Overpasses will be added to U.S. 19 at Belleair Road and Seville Boulevard. Access to the highway from neighborhoods off Harn Boulevard and Nursery Road will be limited to frontage roads, for example.
When it's done, motorists are supposed to be able to make better time because the highway will have limited access — and only one traffic light — for 12 miles from 118 Avenue to north of the Countryside area.
"We've been wanting this project to go through, and we've been disappointed," Hibbard said. "From an economic development standpoint, transportation is a real problem when we talk to companies about getting from Point A to Point B."