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Long road ahead still for U.S. 19 improvements

A motorist attempts to cross northbound traffic on U.S. 19 just south of State Road 52 in Port Richey on Thursday morning amid heavy construction.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

A motorist attempts to cross northbound traffic on U.S. 19 just south of State Road 52 in Port Richey on Thursday morning amid heavy construction.

NEW PORT RICHEY

Had enough of those orange barrels on U.S. 19? If you're waiting for them to disappear, don't hold your breath. Better yet, take a deep breath. The Florida Department of Transportation says the $53 million improvement project on U.S. 19 between Pinellas and Hernando counties has another two years to go.

Just as one phase hit its midway point earlier this month — the stretch from Pinellas to State Road 52 — another was getting started. That phase, from SR 52 north to Hernando, began the second week of November with workers milling the lanes north of the intersection.

For now, most of the work is concentrated south of SR 52, where crews are ripping up medians, installing sidewalks and adding turn lanes.

The highway will look different and should feel safer when work ends in 2015. But until then, expect more of those annoying barrels clogging lanes and making guesswork out of when it's safe and legal to cut between them.

"Uncertainty abounds out there," Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano said Friday. "Last night I was going to Best of Philly Cheese­steaks and I didn't know if I could turn in or not. Between the spacing of the barrels and the guys out there, you couldn't tell."

Pasco bus driver Barbara Thompson said the hardest part for her is inching toward the middle when a flashing arrow indicates the lane ahead is closed.

"People wait until the last second to move over and they don't let the buses in," she said.

FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said the project's overall aim is safety. It's meant to reduce problems caused by cars entering and exiting the highway and cutting through medians.

The biggest change drivers will see — and are already seeing in some places — is continuous right-turn lanes, those long stretches intended solely for entering and exiting the highway. The lanes keep traffic flowing by getting cars off the through-lanes before they turn so they don't slow traffic behind them.

Another change — one that might prove controversial for some — involves the highway's openings in the median. Many are being closed. The DOT believes it's safer in some cases for motorists to make a U-turn at the next signal than allow them to cut across traffic at a median.

The ones that remain will be modified. They'll allow left turns but only from one side of U.S. 19 at a time. Engineers say it's safer to prevent southbound and northbound motorists from using the same cut-through because it can be difficult to see oncoming traffic with another vehicle sitting opposite.

"It's really a safety enhancement," Carson said. "It's something we studied a couple of years ago, with the median modification and continuous right-turn lanes."

The project's first phase to SR 52 has about a year left. The second, north of SR 52, is expected to wrap up in the fall of 2015.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Long road ahead still for U.S. 19 improvements 11/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 6:57pm]
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