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Belcher work nearly complete

Commuters will have to wait a little longer to get a crack at the Belcher Road extension.

The four-lane stretch between Curlew and Tampa roads originally was supposed to open Oct. 11, but county officials had rescheduled the opening for Saturday when it became clear that contractors would not finish in time.

Then, holiday-related delays pushed the extension's opening back at least another five days, said Lloyd Thomas, the construction division engineer in the county's Public Works Department.

"They're not going to make the second, I can tell you that," Thomas said before the Jan. 2 deadline.

Kimmins Contracting Corp. is responsible for building the $5.7-million extension. One of the company's subcontractors, Couch Construction of Tampa, placed asphalt on half of the extension before taking time off for the holidays, Thomas said.

Couch's workers will be back on the job today, and it will take about three days to finish laying the asphalt, Thomas said.

John Zemina, vice president of Kimmins, said Couch shuts down every year around Christmas to do plant maintenance. He expects Belcher Road to open by Thursday or Friday.

"Your Pinellas County residents should be very happy right after the first week in January," he said.

Since Oct. 11, Kimmins has been fined $1,700 for each day the road remains closed.

In past correspondence with the county, Zemina has insisted that last-minute changes by the county and mistakes by others have delayed the project.

Contractors started clearing land for the road in March 1997.

About nine months later, the county decided it wanted the traffic lights at Tampa and Belcher roads to be mounted on metal framework rather than on cables. Only two companies in the nation make those "mast arm" signals.

Kimmins claimed that the county's late decision about the traffic lights delayed the project. County officials, however, blamed Kimmins for not ordering the signals until November.

The traffic lights were installed in December, Thomas said.

The construction of a retaining wall in the wrong place also appeared to have delayed the road's opening. Subcontractors built the wall too close to the east edge of Belcher Road because of an incorrect set of plans.

The wall was later taken apart and rebuilt farther from the road. The county, Kimmins and the subcontractor are still arguing about who is responsible for the mistake, Thomas said.

The county plans to start building the section of Belcher Road between Tampa and Alderman roads in January 2000, said Jim Collins, a traffic division engineer with the county. That project is expected to cost about $6-million. A contractor has not been chosen yet.

Ultimately, Belcher Road will connect with Klosterman Road. The road's improvements are designed to lighten the load on heavily traveled U.S. 19.

The extension between Tampa and Curlew roads is expected to handle about 18,000 vehicles a day within a year or two, county planners have estimated.

Drivers will not notice any ribbon cuttings or other fanfare marking the extension's opening, Thomas said. Instead, county officials plan to celebrate quietly.

"Just a sigh of relief," Thomas said.

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