After more than four years of disgruntled business owners, frustrated motorists and seemingly countless orange barrels, this week motorists will get their first glimpse of a less fury-inducing future on a 2.7-mile stretch of U.S. 19 between Whitney Road and Drew Street.
A new four-lane overpass decorated with a seashell motif will open over Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard on Thursday (barring weather delays) — initially for southbound traffic only. It will eliminate what is sure to be a little-missed traffic signal at Seville Boulevard.
The old northbound Gulf-to-Bay overpass, which looks like a shabby dwarf next to 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 March 2015. When the demolition starts, northbound traffic will shift onto the new overpass.
For most of April, traffic will be rerouted along parts of the route as work crews tackle some major parts of the project. 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 will function better that way.
The portion of the plan currently under construction consists of removing traffic signals and replacing them with new overpasses and frontage roads.
By the time the $114 million project wraps up next year, the average commute should be about 10 minutes shorter, said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Joseph E. Blasewitz Sr., senior project administrator for Parsons Brinckerhoff, a consulting company for the project, helped build Interstate 75 in simpler times when road beds were cut through cow pastures. For the U.S. 19 reconstruction, 14 different utility lines, pipes and cables had to be moved. That work alone took two years.
And then there was the "relic" sinkhole found by workers near the Belleair Road intersection. Two hundred feet deep, it hadn't caused any distress to the road, but it did cause an extra $350,000 in construction costs.
But all that's in the past. Starting this week, U.S. 19 drivers will get their first peek at a smoother commute.
"They're going to like it," said Blasewitz. "It's new asphalt. Rides better."
Stanley Kulach, general manager of the Quality Inn, 20162 U.S. 19 N near Seville Boulevard, is already applauding. Since construction started in late 2009, he's seen a 50 percent drop in business, which has only recently begun to recover.
But Kulach accepted the work with equanimity. Congestion was bad and something needed to be done, he said.
Construction crews were putting the finishing touches on the highway near Seville Boulevard when he arrived at work Monday morning. He didn't hear the "beep-beep-beep" of large construction equipment that has sent so many of his guests packing.
"It's making me smile," Kulach said.
In January, Gov. Rick Scott calmed angry business owners and jittery local politicians by announcing that FDOT would pay the contractor, Hubbard Construction, an extra $3.2 million so crews could work around the clock. If the work is done on time, the contractor will earn an additional $1.6 million incentive.
An unusually rainy spring has complicated the effort. Lime rock, which forms the road bed, takes a long time to dry. Last week alone, four days were lost to rain, Blasewitz said.
For much of April, traffic will be redirected as steel girders are placed to form the new overpass at Belleair Road.
FDOT announced last week that starting this week, the intersection of Belleair Road and U.S. 19 and the southbound lane of U.S. 19 from Nursery to Belleair Road will be closed nightly from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Friday morning. The eastbound lane of Nursery Road at U.S. 19 will also be restricted. A detour route will take motorists from Nursery Road to Belcher Road to Belleair Road and back to U.S. 19.
Beginning Saturday, work on the southbound portion of the overpass will keep the Belleair Road intersection closed from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. until April 19.
The detour will route southbound traffic into a two-way configuration on the northbound portion of U.S. 19 from Belleair Road to just south of Haines Bayshore Road during those hours. Motorists who want to access Belleair Road from U.S. 19 will face a detour using Nursery Road to Belcher Road and back to Belleair Road.
Growing up in Clearwater, Blasewitz never thought he'd be part of an overhaul of a road he witnessed expanding in the 1970s. U.S. 19 was widened again in the 1980s, he said.
His parents fought to have a stoplight installed at Haines Bayshore Road when Blasewitz was a student at Clearwater Central Catholic High School in the early 1970s.
"I'll have the pleasure of removing it," he said.
Charlie Frago can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.