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New Belcher's a breeze

A day after the Belcher Road extension opened from Tampa Road to Alderman Road, I put the county's newest north-south artery to the test.

To give the test drive an authentic feel, I strapped my 2-year-old son in the back of my 1988 Ford Crown Victoria, painted cop-car white, and headed out Friday morning.

How does the new road stack up to the dreaded U.S. 19 or its little sister to the west, Alt. U.S. 19? Which route is fastest? More comfortable? I drove all three, north and south, during morning and afternoon rush hour.

Because the stated purpose of the Belcher Road extension is to alleviate some of the congestion on U.S. 19, I decided to start on 19.

At risk of soliciting a collective, "Duh," I found U.S. 19 as harrowing as usual. No need for speed limit signs here. You can only go as fast as the herd of cars that pin you in on the front and sides.

The white-knuckle experience enjoyed daily by U.S. 19 commuters was enhanced by a van whose driver cut me off. If that wasn't enough, my fellow commuters and I had to slow down to pass the scene of a minor accident just north of Tampa Road. You may argue that a traffic accident skewed this most-unscientific timed test, but with the frequency of fender-benders on U.S. 19, I submit that factoring in a crash delay only makes sense.

Off to Alt. U.S. 19. Here, there isn't the same volume of traffic, but since it's a two-lane road, you're at the mercy of any slowpoke in front of you. And during evening rush hour, the backups at the intersections with Tampa and Alderman roads can leave a driver sitting through several songs on the radio. The road also curves a good deal, unlike the straight shots of Belcher and U.S. 19. I'll end the suspense somewhat. This was the slowest route north and south in the morning and afternoon.

Now on to the main attraction: the new Belcher Road extension.

This is wide-open driving.

With two lanes in each direction and little traffic, slower cars were passed with ease. The speed limit is 45 mph, but I could have cranked it up to double that if I wanted. I didn't.

Total commute time between Curlew and Alderman Road on the Belcher extension was a fairly consistent 4 to 5 minutes, making it the quickest of the three north-south routes by a couple of minutes. In fairness, county officials say it takes a few weeks for drivers to discover a newly opened road. Also consider that during rush hour, east-west traffic between U.S. 19 and Alt. U.S. 19 was brutal, so Belcher probably only saves time if you're heading somewhere between the other two highways.

But speed is just part of the equation. For aesthetics, as well, Belcher is the hands-down winner. Unlike the blur of billboards, strip centers, car dealerships and fast food restaurants on U.S. 19, the Belcher Road extension is lined almost exclusively by homes. Almost all are shielded by wooden fences. And the county promises the medians will soon be landscaped like those along Belcher south of Tampa Road, and which often draw compliments.

In a nutshell, the new road is more attractive and relaxing . . . and faster.

For now.