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Businesses eager for completed U.S. 19 road work

 
Work on U.S. 19 has been constant in Pasco County since 2010. You might remember this orange barrel nightmare on U.S. 19 just south of State Road 52 in Port Richey from 2013.
Work on U.S. 19 has been constant in Pasco County since 2010. You might remember this orange barrel nightmare on U.S. 19 just south of State Road 52 in Port Richey from 2013.
Published March 4, 2016

HUDSON — Tom Castriota wants to open a second car lot across the street from his Chevrolet dealership on U.S. 19, but keeps delaying the move.

"Not until the orange barrels are gone,'' Castriota said. "It's not safe.''

Farther north, there were days last summer when Whitney's Fresh Market shut down its retail seafood store because business was so slow.

"Our customers couldn't get in or couldn't figure out how to get in and just kept on going down the road,'' said Steve Jeanclaude, who works customer service at the store.

At least Whitney's loss was temporary. Daddy O's Doughnuts closed and never did reopen, which Jeanclaude attributed to the U.S. 19 construction.

"It's killing our business. It's killing everybody,'' Castriota said.

The lost commerce is part of the ongoing, but close-to-concluding widening of U.S. 19 between State Road 52 and the Hernando County line. The Florida Department of Transportation originally projected a fall 2015 completion date. But that was before Mother Nature dropped 40 inches of rain on west Pasco County last summer and then followed with a cold snap in January that delayed installation of the final layer of asphalt, called the friction course.

By early April, the contractor, D.A.B. Constructors of Inglis, should complete the major work, except for final pavement markings. Those are expected to take a few additional weeks, said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson.

In the meantime, the barricades remain, keeping the right-hand lanes closed and forcing the nearly 50,000 vehicles that travel that stretch of U.S. 19 each day to squeeze into just two open lanes in each direction.

"It is frustrating,'' said Realtor Greg Armstrong, who heads the governmental affairs committee of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce. "But I don't know what we can possibly do now in a five-week window to speed it up. It's exasperating.''

Armstrong and the chamber previously lobbied the state and D.A.B. to pick up the pace of work along the stretch of highway south of SR 52. They haven't had the same success on the segment north of SR 52. Armstrong said the contractor recently declined the chamber's request to open the third lane in each direction now that the right-hand turn lanes are finished.

The ongoing work to add the continuous right-hand turn lanes and to close and channelize the medians is part of a $72 million overhaul of the highway in Pasco County. The push for safety improvements began 14 years ago after U.S. 19 gained notoriety as the nation's most dangerous road for pedestrians to traverse. Statistics showed that more than 1,000 people were injured each year in U.S. 19 traffic accidents in Pasco County, including 38 deaths in 2001, twice the annual average of the prior seven years.

The state added street lights and large-letter, easier-to-read street signs. Volunteers handed out blinking flashers to pedestrians, and voters approved the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2004, which includes $7.6 million for the U.S. 19 improvements.

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For business owners north of SR 52, the completion date can't come soon enough. For others, removal of the orange barrels will end a visual blight that just marked an anniversary.

The improvements to U.S. 19 began in Holiday six years ago this week — on March 1, 2010.