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Road-work weary? The end is in sight

U.S. 41 will be an easy, breezy drive by February, a state DOT official says.

Two years down; half a year to go.

That's the mantra on the lips of drivers frazzled by construction delays from the widening of U.S. 41 from County Line Road to Bell Lake Road in central Pasco County.

The project, a chore for motorists since the first backhoe clawed the soil in July 1997, should wrap up soon after the start of the new millennium.

"It's going to be substantially complete, with people driving on all six lanes, in February of 2000," said Marian Scorza, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

Not a moment too soon for business owners who have watched construction crews raise dust for the past two years to the detriment of their profits.

The intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 remains a mess, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours. Many businesses survive with makeshift signs and wheel-jarring dirt entrances.

Chris Willett, owner of Hot Locks Hair Company, gazes out the window at U.S. 41, two lanes of it open in front of her business, the other lanes being laid with asphalt.

At 3 p.m., the cars already are starting to stretch past Lake Francisco Plaza, south of SR 54.

Willett said business has dropped 60 percent since work started on the road. One of her competitors, Euro Stylecutters, closed up shop last year. Its faded sign is visible across the parking lot.

"It's been horrible," Willett said. "It's ruined my credit. I'm just hanging on by a thread."

Businesses in Pasco Plaza at U.S. 41 and SR 54 have fared better, if only because customers can dodge the traffic jams using Carson Drive.

"If it hadn't been for Carson Drive we would probably have been dead meat," said Judy Cardinal of Tropical Breeze Tanning Studio.

But Jim Thomas, who owns a sports card business next to the tanning salon, said the growing population of Land O'Lakes has reversed any drop-off in business from the construction.

"If you can't make it here, you can't make it anywhere," he said.

Scorza said crews will spend the next several months ripping up the pavement on the old section of U.S. 41, laying new asphalt and installing gutters, curbs and sidewalks.

Some of the new lanes might open as early as December, Scorza said, but it won't bring any relief to the main intersection, where traffic isn't expected to flow freely until the grand opening in February.

For Alex Fotopoulus, who runs the ABC Pizza on U.S. 41 and Lake Patience Road, the construction has barely dented business.

Nonetheless, he said, he is eager for the scrapers and steamrollers, and the dirt clouds that accompany them, to disappear.

"We've got to suffer for a while for something better to come," he said. "It will be beautiful in another five months."