CLEARWATER — Officials have spent six years and hundreds of millions of dollars so far to transform U.S. 19 into a limited-access highway through mid Pinellas County.
But now that commuters are shooting across a series of new overpasses, the highway-speed traffic on the road is making it tricky and dangerous to make a left turn across U.S. 19 along the stretch around Enterprise Road.
That's why state highway officials said Wednesday that they intend to close all five openings in U.S. 19's median between Countryside Boulevard and Sunset Point Road.
They say it's no longer safe for southbound drivers to turn left and cross against the traffic on northbound U.S. 19 to get to businesses on the east side of the road. Instead, southbound drivers will have to continue on to Sunset Point Road and make a U-turn into the northbound lanes to reach those businesses.
From January to May, the Florida Department of Transportation counted 35 crashes along that stretch of U.S. 19, including 18 collisions at Enterprise Road alone. For drivers trying to turn left, "there are no gaps in the traffic flow," said Scott Collister, the DOT's local director of transportation development.
He told local officials on the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization that the DOT will soon close the median openings at McCormick Drive, the Cypress Point Shopping Center and leading into Dimmit Chevrolet.
Some officials wondered how that would affect businesses. "Things are slow right now," said Belleair Bluffs Mayor Chris Arbutine.
Collister responded that on average, it will take only one more minute for southbound drivers to get to locations on the east side of U.S. 19.
Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard called that stretch of road "significantly dangerous." Besides the crashes that the DOT counted, Hibbard often sees near-misses there.
"You're really a victim of your own success with the overpasses," Hibbard told highway officials.
Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan said he already sees southbound U.S. 19 drivers skip past those median openings and make U-turns at Sunset Point Road. "I'm not sure this is a terrible departure from what people are already doing," he said.
After the median openings are closed, the DOT will start designing the larger part of the $5.6-million project earmarked for U.S. 19 in that area.
They intend to build a frontage road alongside the northbound section to help cars merge onto the fast highway from businesses' driveways. That road will run from McCormick Drive north to First Avenue N, Collister said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.