Those who travel the northern end of Pinellas County have a promise from transportation officials: Long-delayed work to improve congested stretches of two North Pinellas roadways will get under way in the new year. The improvements won't just make the daily commutes easier. Evacuating North Pinellas in the face of a threatening hurricane or other disaster could be a little less difficult, too.
How many times have residents been told that a widening of Keystone Road between U.S. 19 and East Lake Road was just around the corner? We've lost count. The project was first envisioned by the county in the 1970s.
But county officials say this time, it's for real — construction will begin in early spring. Funding and dozens of right of way purchases have been finalized, tinkering with the design is done and problems with engineering and the sandy, hilly terrain have been ironed out. The project, which will cost more than $82 million, will widen Keystone's narrow, curving two lanes to a divided, four-lane road along the 3-mile stretch around the northern end of Lake Tarpon.
Construction will last almost two years, and those years will no doubt be miserable for motorists who use Keystone to get from U.S. 19 into East Lake, the Trinity area of Pasco County and northwestern Hillsborough County, but at least the suffering will have an eventual reward. The road will be safer, capable of handling more traffic, and will include enough reserved right of way for future expansion, if it becomes necessary.
Even greater construction-related hassles may face motorists who use Race Track Road in Oldsmar. The congested stretch just north of Tampa Road will be improved in a project also to begin in early 2010. Race Track Road has been a bottleneck for many years, but especially since the construction of Citrus Park Mall and numerous subdivisions in Oldsmar and on the Hillsborough County side of the Pinellas-Hillsborough line.
Hillsborough County has been working on improvements to Race Track Road — both its Hillsborough and Pinellas portions — for several years, starting on its end of the road where it connects with Mobley Road, providing an improved direct route to the mall for North Pinellas residents.
Two phases of the project were completed earlier, and horse racing fans will see the result of the third phase when racing season at Tampa Bay Downs opens this weekend. The road near the track has been elevated, widened and moved westward, so racing fans no longer have to park their cars on one side of Race Track Road and cross the busy roadway to reach the track. The work dramatically improves access to Tampa Bay Downs and allows traffic to flow smoothly through the area rather than having to stop to let track visitors cross the road.
Hillsborough transportation officials say the last phase, the section from Douglas Road to Tampa Road, will be the toughest because it is a heavily commercialized strip ending in the major intersection of Tampa and Race Track roads. Traffic from a business park and the Oldsmar Flea Market feeds into that section of Race Track Road, too. Phase four will take an estimated 14 months to complete.
Projects such as the Bayside Bridge, widening of Tampa and Curlew roads and extra lanes and overpasses on U.S. 19 have made getting around North Pinellas much easier than during the 1980s and '90s, when growth and insufficient road infrastructure created nightmares for motorists. When the Keystone and Race Track Road projects are completed, two more problems will be fixed. In the meantime, patience, everyone.