Hernando County commissioners, who have heard and lived through three years of war stories about the Cortez Boulevard widening project, can hardly wait to see the last of the orange barrels disappear.
Soon, they should get their wish.
Officials from the Florida Department of Transportation have told the commission that they expect the $58 million widening project to be completed by early October.
Discussion about the project, which got under way in the fall of 2012, led to chatter among commissioners as they began to hear from residents and business owners who also endured months of heavy equipment, work crews, shifting turn lanes, flagmen and a lack of traffic light coordination.
David Vogel, the DOT's senior project manager, told the commission that the final layers of pavement will soon be applied at the U.S. 19 end of the project. As those final layers are completed, work crews will begin to open up parts of the new six-lane highway moving from west to east, ending at the Suncoast Parkway.
"So, the traveling public will start to see some of the benefits of the widening," Vogel said.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he had concerns about motorist confusion near the U.S. 19 intersection, with merging lanes and turn lanes.
"There's a lot of broken glass in that area," Dukes said.
Commissioner Diane Rowden said the biggest trouble spot was the intersection of Mariner and Cortez boulevards and the single left-turn lane from westbound Cortez to southbound Mariner. Some motorists must wait through multiple light changes to complete the turn, "which is a disaster," Rowden said.
Vogel said the single-turn lane will remain only until the intersection is finished. At that point, there will be two left-turn lanes onto Mariner.
He called the intersection "sort of the epicenter of the whole thing" and predicted that completion of that portion of the project will likely be one of the last things done.
"You saved the worst for last," Dukes said.
The intersection has been troublesome for a while, but the congestion was exacerbated by construction of the Cortez Commons shopping center, at the intersection's southwest corner, over the past two years. Another difficulty has been the reconfiguration of a service road that had allowed traffic onto Mariner in both directions from shopping centers at the intersection's southeast corner, including Bealls, Walmart and Sam's Club stores.
A new frontage road that will again allow access to Mariner, in line with the frontage road at Cortez Commons, is under construction now.
Dukes noted that he had the intersection written on his forehead because of all the community commentary he had heard about it. The DOT officials joked that if Dukes had the intersection written on his forehead, they had it tattooed on theirs.
Rowden said she had a more permanent reminder. She had it stamped onto the front and back of her car several months ago when her vehicle was rear-ended at the intersection.
She also has said she's seen numerous confused drivers at and near the intersection, including people turning into oncoming traffic and people driving around barrels like an obstacle course closer to the Suncoast Parkway.
"That's the DOT slalom," said David Hoover, the project manager.
The Cortez construction is being done by D.A.B. Constructors at a contract cost of $39.1 million. Approximately $33 million has been paid so far. In addition to the widening, the project includes standard sidewalks on the north side of the road and a multiuse trail that is 12 feet at its widest point on the south side.
The allotted time for the work was 925 days, and Vogel noted that some extra days were given to the contractor because of rain.
"It's not going to be too much longer," Vogel assured commissioners, who have gotten a lot of comments blaming them for delays and other problems with the project.
Commission Chairman Nick Nicholson said he hoped that when the work is finally finished, even though commissioners had no control over it, they will get some congratulations, as well.
But even if they don't, that's fine, he said.
"Believe me, I'll be very glad," he said. "Like all of us sitting up here, I will be tickled to death that it's finished."
Contact Barbara Behrendt at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.