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Your stimulus dollars at work

The miracle on U.S. 19

Florida Department of Transportation

Florida Department of Transportation

Tampa Bay area drivers soon will see the benefits of federal stimulus dollars as two major road projects are jump-started. In the coming months, construction will start on the Interstate 4/Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway connector in Hillsborough County, and on more improvements to U.S. 19 in north Pinellas County. Stimulus money, combined with innovative financing arrangements, enabled the state to move up the Hillsborough project by three years and the Pinellas project by two years. The projects will create jobs and further economic opportunities — both primary goals of the federal stimulus money.


The miracle on U.S. 19

Five years of heavy construction will try the patience of U.S. 19 motorists in north Pinellas County, but the payoff will be a 12-mile stretch of road without any aggravating stoplights. And that seems miraculous to those who remember the nightmarish U.S. 19 traffic jams of the 1980s and 1990s, when motorists plastered their cars with bumper stickers that read "Pray for Me — I drive U.S. 19."

Projects already completed by the Florida Department of Transportation have transformed U.S. 19 to a limited access highway in parts of Clearwater, Largo and Pinellas Park. There were additional overpass projects on DOT's construction schedule, but with the economy in the dumps and the state slashing its budget, there was no reason to believe those projects would be built any time soon.

A welcome influx of federal stimulus money changed the picture. In just three months, crews will start work on a five-year, $162 million construction project to transform a bogged-down segment of U.S. 19 in Clearwater to a controlled-access freeway. The project involves replacing the U.S. 19 bridge over State Road 60, also known as Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, with a modern overpass that will span SR 60 and Seville Boulevard; building a new overpass at Belleair Road; eliminating signalized intersections at Haines Bayshore, Nursery Road and Harn Boulevard; and adding two-lane frontage roads on both sides of U.S. 19. A 2.6-mile stretch of U.S. 19 that now has numerous signalized intersections will have none, making it safer and faster.

DOT District 7 Secretary Donald Skelton acknowledges the project will be a complex undertaking because of the heavy flow of U.S. 19 traffic through the construction area. It will be important for DOT to have an excellent traffic maintenance plan for the construction zone. It will have to share the details early and often with the public to prevent pushing U.S. 19 traffic onto other area streets ill- equipped to handle it.

Since 1990, DOT has pursued a plan to convert U.S. 19 into a limited access highway the length of Pinellas County. Revenue issues led to delays, and an immediate launch of this phase was possible only because DOT used $45 million in federal stimulus funds to leverage additional financing. The project will provide jobs for local workers at a time when many in the construction trades are out of work. Its long-term benefit will be felt by generations of commuters and local drivers, who will see fewer stoplights and brake lights as they travel U.S. 19 through central Pinellas. A link to a better future

Connecting Interstate 4 to the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway has always made sense. The Crosstown runs almost parallel to the interstate, and connecting the highways will accommodate more business at the Port of Tampa and give commuters coming from both sides of Tampa Bay easier access to the interstate system. The road work has been on the planning books for years, but it took federal stimulus money to get the half-billion-dollar project started.

About 11,000 trucks enter or leave the port daily. From I-4, the trucks head south on 21st Street to the port. They leave the port heading north on 22nd Street. Both streets are one way and cut through the heart of historic Ybor City. The situation is not good for the port, and it's not good for Ybor businesses.

The state Department of Transportation will build a new corridor into and out of the port along 31st Street, several blocks east. The I-4/Selmon Connector will be an elevated roadway between the interstate and the Selmon, with access ramps to keep pass-through traffic from clogging local roads.

The entire project will cost $446 million. The state will commit $105 million in stimulus money, and pay the balance over several years under a "build-finance" contract with a private builder. Officials expect the project will create 12,000 jobs and spin off more economic development in the Tampa Bay area.

The connector will benefit truckers and commuters alike. Trucks leaving the port will have a straight shot to I-4, I-75 and I-275. Trucks coming into Tampa from the east will have shorter routes to Pinellas and the rest of the Gulf Coast. The added capacity will enable Tampa to capitalize on new shipping opportunities made possible by the expansion of the Panama Canal, which, like the connector, is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

The connector also will be a boon for commuters, creating a better link between the bay area freeways. Once the bypass connecting the Selmon with the Gandy Bridge is completed, residents will have a new expressway from eastern Tampa to St. Petersburg. It also fills a void in an evacuation route for residents of south Pinellas. Taking thousands of trucks off local roads in Ybor will make the historic district safer and more attractive.

The DOT will need to manage this mammoth project responsibly. That includes being sensitive to the design concerns of businesses and residents in and around the historic district. Done right, the project will leave a positive legacy and pay dividends for years.

The miracle on U.S. 19 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 9:21pm]
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