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Overpass work will put drivers in slow lanes

For drivers in mid-Pinellas, the overpasses on U.S. 19 at Ulmerton Road and East Bay Drive have meant the difference between an aggravating, stop-and-go commute and an easy drive home.

If all goes according to plan, in two and a half years, drivers in North Pinellas will experience that same ease of movement.

But between now and then, U.S. 19 in Countryside might seem like the road to nowhere.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT) will hold a public meeting today to outline the construction that will soon begin on U.S. 19 at the intersections of Countryside Boulevard and State Road 580.

When construction is done, those intersections will have overpasses similar to those in mid-Pinellas.

The project is part of a long-range plan to make U.S. 19 a faster-moving highway with limited access from Pinellas Park to Pasco County.

"Eventually there will be a really nice facility out there," said DOT spokeswoman Lee Royal.

But between now and then, drivers will find that it's life in the slow lane.

Royal said the department will try to make things as painless as possible by keeping the same number of lanes open throughout construction.

Construction will begin, barring delays, Feb. 26. The contractor, PCL Civil Constructors, will lay temporary pavement on the outside of the road to divert traffic when construction begins in the middle.

"It will be a similar construction scenario as the other (overpasses)," Royal said. "It will be an inconvenience. But we'll maintain the lanes we have out there and try to make it so it won't be so much of a problem."

The 1.5-mile project, which is near Countryside Mall, will cost the state and federal government about $24-million.

The roadway will still be six lanes at the overpasses but will also include a two-lane frontage road on either side.

At the Ulmerton Road and East Bay Drive interchanges, many business owners have complained that business was hurt by the overpasses.

Royal said many people are concerned about the construction of the Countryside overpasses and she hopes to see those people at today's meeting at the Countryside branch of the Clearwater Library.

"We've had a lot of inquiries as to what type of design it will be and how it will affect business," Royal said. "Some adjacent property owners want to know what construction will be going on, what will they see and what they can anticipate. That's what this meeting is for."

Those who remember the years of maneuvering through cones at Ulmerton and East Bay have an idea of what it will be like around Countryside Mall for the next two and a half years.

The Countryside project was supposed to start late next year, but will begin sooner because of an infusion of highway construction money from a 5.2-cents-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax.

DOT's long-range goal is to change U.S. 19 from a slow-moving road to a swift highway bisecting the county by the end of this decade, agency officials say.

Today's 5:30 p.m. meeting will be at the Clearwater Countryside Library, 2741 State Road 580.