Driving on U.S. 19 through Clearwater these days reminds me of those old movies that show covered wagons laboring across the West. The wagons tilt, bounce and swerve over the uneven terrain on trips that seem primed for disaster.
It's similarly jarring and challenging to drive U.S. 19 between Whitney Road and Countryside Boulevard. That stretch is being converted to a limited access highway in a massive project that started in 2009 and was projected to finish in 2013 … then 2014 … now late 2015.
Driving it is a daily adventure, since workers can reconfigure the lanes overnight. No need for caffeine when the day starts with a U.S. 19 adrenaline rush.
The other day I set out to go north from my home to Clearwater Mall on what had the previous day been a simple three-lane stretch of highway. Suddenly, I was confronted by a new split in the road. The right-hand lane had become an exit-only lane, which I realized — too late — I would need to take to get to the mall.
One day the road will be arrow straight. The next day, new curves will appear, forcing drivers to hit their brakes where they didn't need them yesterday.
The frequent realignment of lanes has done a number on the asphalt. It dips. It has washboard-like bumps. Potholes appear. Don't dare leave the lid off your coffee cup!
On April 22, motorists southbound from the Palm Harbor area discovered there was a new frontage road they had to take to access businesses on the west side of U.S. 19 between Countryside Boulevard and Sunset Point Road. If they didn't make an early decision to get on the frontage road, they were forced into the nonstop through lanes.
And even if they made it onto the frontage road, heaven help them if they missed the driveway into their destination. They had to continue southbound on the one-way frontage road to Sunset Point Road — up to 2 miles away — do a U-turn back onto northbound U.S. 19, go back up to Countryside and do a U-turn back onto the southbound frontage road.
Do all that on a road with bumpy pavement, no shoulders and a jungle of signs and barricades.
There's been a lot of press about the U.S. 19 work between Whitney Road and Gulf-to-Bay but not so much about the project between Sunset Point and Countryside. Times readers often ask what's happening there. And they wonder when they will be able to take Enterprise Road across U.S. 19 again.
The answer, fellow travelers, is never. The $19 million project under way there is specifically to eliminate the Enterprise Road intersection, add frontage roads to both sides of U.S. 19 and repave. The state has offered the contractor an incentive of $750,000 to finish the work by April 5, 2015, six months early.
It's not all bad out on U.S. 19. In mid April, drivers discovered that the new, higher overpass that spans Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard was open to traffic for the first time — a huge improvement over the narrow, battle-scarred bridge it replaced.