1. Transportation

Ulmerton Road update: What's going on, and when will it end?

Constant construction sites such as this one on Ulmerton Road near Interstate 275 are testing businesses. “You couldn’t see us if you tried,” said Jamie Kane at Central Motor Werks.
Constant construction sites such as this one on Ulmerton Road near Interstate 275 are testing businesses. “You couldn’t see us if you tried,” said Jamie Kane at Central Motor Werks.
Published May 8, 2016

It has inspired social media pages with snarky posts. It has cut profits and created logistical nightmares for its neighboring businesses. It has pushed drivers to come up with creative commutes and even more creative language.

It is Ulmerton Road, and the bright orange cones and barrels have become all too familiar to drivers traversing the packed east-west corridor in Pinellas County. For some, it's hard to remember a time when there wasn't road work, which leads to the question: What the heck is going on out there?

"It's just frustrating when you know that there are literally millions of tax dollars being spent, and there's just nothing but cones and barrels," said 62-year-old Mike Straub, an Ulmerton regular and contributor to the Ulmerton Road page on Facebook where drivers often air their grievances.

According to the Florida Department of Transportation, there are two projects on the road now: one between 49th Street and 38th Street that still has more than a year left before completion and one between the Lake Seminole Bypass Canal and El Ranchero Boulevard that is expected to wrap up in July or August. A third project, between 38th Street and Interstate 275, finished at the end of April about 20 days ahead of schedule.

The total cost is about $64 million for the projects, which are intended to widen the road from four to six lanes and lay the groundwork for — wait for it — even more construction down the line. Road work has been going on at one point or another since January 2012, when the construction on the west end of the road kicked off, said department spokeswoman Kris Carson.

That particular project has a bit of drainage work, pond repair and one more layer of asphalt left to go, said district construction engineer Bill Jones. It was set back for about a year because of weather and holiday delays plus time extensions for unforeseen issues that popped up, such as having to move underground pipes that weren't marked correctly on utility maps.

"It's not the fault of the contractor," Carson said. "We add time to the contract and deal with that issue."

The project also hit a roadblock in January when the original construction company, Conalvias USA, voluntarily defaulted on the contract and walked off the job, she said.

Jones said the company met all of the pre-qualifying standards when it was awarded the contract, but it won't be allowed to work with the department in the future. A new company, Tampa-based Prince Contracting, was brought on to finish the work.

That leaves the segment between 49th Street and 38th Street, by far the most torn up and congested stretch of Ulmerton. The $19.3 million project started in February 2015 with the goal to widen the road and remove the Roosevelt Boulevard flyover going from the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport onto eastbound Ulmerton.

The removal, up next in the construction queue after workers finish paving the eastbound Ulmerton lanes, is in preparation for the Gateway Expressway, which will connect U.S. 19 and the Bayside Bridge to Interstate 275. A stoplight intersection with three left turn lanes will replace the flyover, according to the DOT. Plans also call for the removal of the light at 40th Street to keep traffic moving on Ulmerton.

The project, which Palm Harbor-based David Nelson Construction Co. is working on, has hit multiple delays: 69 days for utility conflicts, 13 for weather and another 13 for holidays, Carson said.

The contract was also extended 15 days after Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in August for Pinellas and several other counties because of severe weather and flooding. Officials anticipate another two-week extension as well because of revisions to traffic control plans, Carson said.

For businesses along the segment, the finish line is hard to see through all the barricades and dust. And so are they.

"You couldn't see us if you tried," said Jamie Kane, office manager at Central Motor Werks at 4730 Ulmerton Road. "You would think it's a prime location."

The entrance to the car lot is surrounded by barrels, making it tough to spot the turn into the parking lot. The business usually sells 15 or 16 cars in a month, she said, until construction began. Last month, it sold only six, and a few months before that, only one, Kane said.

Down the road, Mike Chevalier and his team at Carsmetics of Clearwater have taken to calling the road "malfunction junction." Chevalier said his store has lost about $15,000 to $20,000 a month in business during construction.

Like at Central Motor Werks, customers often pass the business then struggle to find a place to make a U-turn. Chevalier came up with a route to guide customers into the parking lot, but even then, they arrive to pick up their newly repaired car only to find it covered in construction dust.

Drivers, too, have had to make adjustments. Tom Iovino became so stressed navigating the road that he decided to "leave the driving with the professionals," he said. Iovino, 47, now takes the bus to his job in Hillsborough County.

With his free time on the commute, he, like Straub, has taken to the Facebook page to handle his frustrations with a dose of humor.

"If you are totally bored with smooth, straight, easy to navigate roadways and prefer to take the more weather beaten, adventurous trail, Ulmerton Road is the boulevard for you!" he wrote in the review section of the page.

The rating? Five stars.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.