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Traffic jam's end may be in sight

Drivers trapped in traffic on McMullen-Booth Road are a bit closer to relief after a circuit judge this week awarded Pinellas County the land needed to begin widening the highway.

"We're going ahead with the project," said Gene Jordan, director of public works.

The construction will add four lanes to McMullen-Booth between State Road 580 and Main Street in Safety Harbor and two more lanes to the section from SR 580 to Curlew Road.

When complete, McMullen-Booth will be a six-lane highway divided by grass medians, similar to its sections south of Main Street in Safety Harbor.

The job will be advertised in local newspapers, and bids will be opened June 29, Jordan said Friday.

He expects a contract to be signed by Aug. 31, with construction beginning within a month. The estimated $13-million project should take 20 months to complete.

In hearings this week, a judge gave the county 15 to 25 parcels needed for the widening, including land still owned by the McMullen and Booth families, County Attorney Susan Churuti said.

The price tag for that land will come later, during jury trials. Landowners in condemnation lawsuits can choose to have a jury decide how much their property is worth. The government foots the bill for the owners' attorneys and experts. The jurors then decide how much money to give the owners for their property.

Only one piece of land along McMullen-Booth remains unresolved, a strip in front of Mease Hospital in Dunedin. That property, however, isn't needed to begin the work on the two-lane sections.

A hearing on the remaining parcel is set for next week.

McMullen-Booth has proved to be a traffic headache for drivers after the opening of the Bayside Bridge earlier this month. The bridge opening boosted traffic on McMullen-Booth by 38 percent as many U.S. 19 drivers took the alternative route out of Palm Harbor, Countryside and East Lake. That translated to rush-hour backups stalling traffic around SR 580 and Enterprise Road.