CLEARWATER — After six long years of orange barrels, concrete barriers, periodic road closings and lane shifts, frustrated commuters on U.S. 19 are getting a bit of relief.
Traffic on U.S. 19 through Clearwater and northern Largo has finally been shifted off the frontage roads and onto a new free-flowing highway that has been constructed down the middle of the roadway corridor.
That highway now runs two lanes in each direction, but it will be three lanes each way by the time all the road construction work is finished in August, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
"Things are getting much closer to their permanent arrangement there," DOT official Joe Blasewitz said. "We've switched the traffic to where it will permanently go."
A new northbound on-ramp between Seville Boulevard and State Road 60 just opened. A southbound on-ramp at Drew Street, which was closed for construction, has reopened.
"I just want it to be done. Everyone's so ready for it to be done," said Ray Latimer of Clearwater, who drives up and down U.S. 19 for his job as an air-conditioning technician. "It seems like this thing has taken forever."
It was way back in 2009 when officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for the reconstruction of a 2 ½-mile stretch of U.S. 19 from Whitney Road to State Road 60. Crews were to build overpasses and frontage roads, widening and elevating the traffic-clogged road.
The $116 million job was supposed to be finished by 2013. Construction has been repeatedly delayed by a host of problems, including a sinkhole, loads of buried concrete in the road corridor, rainy weather and difficulties with a creek.
So, why does the new highway only have two lanes in each direction, and not three lanes yet?
Because on the northern end of the construction project, crews are still working on the road's median. On the southern end, they're still working on the outer edges of the highway, as well as the space between the highway and its frontage roads.
"As things progress, we'll be opening up more lanes as they become available," Blasewitz said.
That means the end is in sight — at least on one stretch of the road. But there are still more orange barrels and concrete barriers to come.
Over time, the state intends to turn U.S. 19 into a signal-free, limited-access highway through much of mid- and northern Pinellas County, from 49th Street north to Tampa Road. Officials say the congested road will be safer and function better that way.
Contact Mike Brassfield at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.