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Road work promises relief for commuters near Pinellas-Hillsborough line

Relief is in sight for Keystone and Race Track roads, two long overburdened routes serving commuter traffic near the Hillsborough-Pinellas county line.

For residents of the East Lake community in northern Pinellas County, the two lanes of Keystone Road were plenty for commuting between U.S. 19 and East Lake Road back in 1980. The 3-mile strip was a rural passageway between Tarpon Springs, the pastoral horse country south of Odessa and northern Hillsborough County.

But the population around the road has tripled since the late 2000s. In the East Lake area of Pinellas, housing units jumped to more than 17,000 in 2007 from about 4,100 homes in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And with the growth came the cars.

"I know the five o'clock traffic can some days very easily get backed up for miles," said Don Ewing, a resident of the area and president of the Council of North County Neighborhoods, a local community group.

After years of vying for Penny for Pinellas money, the project is set to begin construction in earnest this spring — more than a decade after it was seriously envisioned by county planners. The design calls for Keystone's two lanes to become four between U.S. 19 and East Lake Road, with room for two more lanes in the future. The price tag: $93.5 million. Estimated completion time: two years.

Joe DeMoss, the project manager of the Keystone Road expansion, said other than funding problems, design and engineering roadblocks came into play. There were changes in zoning regulations, utility lines to move both above and underground, hilly terrain to raise or flatten, and Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements to incorporate.

"It's more stuff than you could put into a newspaper," DeMoss said.

The other road expansion is the stretch of Race Track Road extending south from the subdivisions around Westchester of Hillsborough past Tampa Bay Downs to the strip malls along Tampa Road in Oldsmar.

Anyone who travels along Race Track Road, which skirts the border between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, has likely felt the swampish slowdowns caused by earth movers and workers in hard hats over the past year. But with two phases completed, a third nearly finished and the final stretch set to begin early next year, the $50 million project is beginning to show results.

Tampa Bay Downs used to have its parking facilities across the street from the track. The road was routed to join the track with the parking lot, which means no more pedestrians jaywalking across the increasingly popular route.

Reg Alford, the manager of the Race Track Road project for Hillsborough County, said after spending almost eight years acquiring the necessary land and funding, it's a relief to see an end in sight.

"It's been so long since we acquired the right of way. We started this back in 2002. I'm excited to see it come to a completion," he said.

But, Alford said, the last phase, between Douglas and Tampa roads, is expected to be the hardest. A Publix and Lowe's shopping center is at the end of the route, and the Oldsmar Flea Market also lies along the roadside.

"The trickiest is this last one," he said.

The intersection could also be the busiest the project has faced. Estimated time until completion: 14 months.

Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or dtao@sptimes.com

Road work promises relief for commuters near Pinellas-Hillsborough line 11/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 3:09pm]
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