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Belcher Road stretch finally connects

After more than two decades on the drawing board and another year in construction, the Belcher Road extension through Palm Harbor is set to open Thursday afternoon.

The 1.8-mile stretch of Belcher Road between Tampa and Alderman roads was built mainly to alleviate congestion on U.S. 19 and Alt. U.S. 19.

Its opening has been eagerly awaited by some, dreaded by others.

"I'm excited," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a Palm Harbor resident who travels often to the county seat in Clearwater. "I'm assuming this is going to be able to take a big chunk of traffic off U.S. 19."

Neighbors whose homes back up to the new road are less enthusiastic.

"I'm sure not thrilled about it," said Suzie Shoemaker, 48, whose back yard overlooks the new four-lane road.

Shoemaker said she's not looking forward to the noise, the additional traffic and the smell of car exhaust. It will destroy the peacefulness of the neighborhood, one of the things that attracted her there 13 years ago.

"We always knew it was going to come," she said. She and other neighbors just hoped it would be later than sooner.

Though many may have believed the road would never actually be built, Latvala said, everyone knew it has been in the county plans for decades.

"You can't stop progress," Latvala said. "For the few (that may complain), there are thousands more who will enjoy driving on it."

There will be no ribbon-cutting or other fanfare Thursday, said Paul Giuliani, Pinellas County's division engineer for construction administration. When the construction crews are finished, he said, they'll just remove the temporary barriers and let traffic through.

The project, begun in April 2001, is finishing a month late. A few unforeseen problems, such as underground utilities, contributed to delays for the contractor, R E Purcell Construction Co. of Tarpon Springs, Giuliani said. But considering the scope of the nearly $6-million project, and given the delays caused by rain the past few weeks, the completion date, "is not that bad really," he said.

Belcher Road now extends from Alderman Road in Palm Harbor all the way to Tyrone Boulevard (called 78th Street at the southern end).

Already, design work is under way to extend Belcher another 2.2 miles north, from Alderman Road to Klosterman Road. Construction isn't scheduled to begin until 2007, and the road will take about 18 months to construct, said Jim Collins, county engineer.

Collins said the newest extension of Belcher Road should alleviate some of the congestion now dumped onto Curlew Road, where Belcher now ends. The extension will put more cars on Alderman Road, he said, but Alderman "is in pretty good shape to handle that," Collins said. Unlike Curlew, a two-lane road, Alderman has four lanes.

The main goal, he said, is to divert some cars that are now using U.S. 19. An average of 96,397 cars a day used U.S. 19 through Palm Harbor, according to a 2001 traffic count. Another 25,000 used Alt. U.S. 19 on the stretch south of Nebraska.

The extension was paid for with money from Penny for Pinellas.