Back in 2009, officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the reconstruction of U.S. 19 through Clearwater and Largo. Crews would build overpasses and frontage roads, widening and elevating the traffic-clogged road. Construction would last through 2013, they said.
Fast-forward to now. The project's end date is listed as late 2015. Construction is way behind schedule, infuriating U.S. 19 commuters and businesses.
Why can't they speed up the work? frustrated business owners have been asking with increasing frequency. Why can't they work nights?
On Friday afternoon, Gov. Rick Scott announced that Florida will pay extra to fast-track the work.
"These are your dollars," he told an audience of a couple of dozen U.S. 19 business owners gathered in the clubhouse of a Clearwater mobile home park. "We are trying to allocate the dollars as best as we can."
The Florida Department of Transportation will pay the contractor on the $113.5 million job, Hubbard Construction, an extra $3.2 million for more crews and equipment so the construction can continue around the clock, said DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad. If the work is done on time, the contractor will earn an additional $1.6 million incentive.
Prasad said that should allow construction crews to meet three new deadlines:
April 15: Southbound U.S. 19 traffic will move onto newly completed overpasses at State Road 60 and Seville Boulevard in Clearwater.
Oct. 15: U.S. 19 traffic will move off the frontage roads and onto a free-flowing highway that's being built down the middle of the road corridor.
March 2015: The project will be finished, nine months ahead of the current schedule.
State Sen. Jack Latvala and state Rep. Ed Hooper, both R-Clearwater, and county Commissioner Karen Seel have been among the local officials pushing to fast-track the project. All were present at Scott's announcement.
Seel also has been laying the groundwork for Clearwater and Largo to relax their noise ordinances to allow the overnight construction work.
The state intends to turn U.S. 19 into a signal-free, limited-access highway for 12 miles through mid Pinellas County, from 49th Street N to Sunset Point Road. Officials say the congested road will be safer and function better that way.
The portion of the plan currently under way consists of removing traffic signals on U.S. 19 between Whitney Road and State Road 60 and replacing them with new overpasses and frontage roads.
In practice, that has meant three years of orange barrels and concrete barriers, periodic road closings and lane shifts.
Many businesses say they're just trying to survive the construction, and more urgency on the state's part will help.
"We should have done this a long time ago," said Bill Runyan, sales manager at the Harberson RV dealership on U.S. 19 near Whitney Road, referring to fast-tracking the project.
He said the RV lot has suffered "substantial" losses because customers are uncomfortable trying to steer their vehicles into the lot's narrow access point while they're in bumper-to-bumper 55 mph traffic that's being funneled onto a frontage road. "With our business, they're not coming down there with a little Honda Civic. They're coming in a 40-foot bus," he said.
Prasad said the road construction has been delayed by unforeseen problems, including a sinkhole, loads of buried concrete in the road corridor, and difficulties with a creek.
Fred Forsley, owner of the Sea Dog Brew Pub at the northwest corner of U.S. 19 and Enterprise Road, is aggravated by a different construction project on his stretch of the road.
"There's just no progress. There's been nobody working out there the last 45 to 50 days," Forsley said. "Why isn't anybody working?"
He was referring to a separate, $17 million road project intended to improve the U.S. 19 corridor between Sunset Point Road and Countryside Boulevard. It includes closing the intersection at Enterprise Road.
Officials say they'll try to fast-track that project, too. It's scheduled to be done in 2015.
"That's the next one," Latvala said. "We'll talk with the contractor."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.