CLEARWATER — It should be smoother sailing this morning for motorists traveling U.S. 19 from Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Seville Road, an area that has seemed like a permanent construction zone.
Southbound lanes on the main highway and two overpasses were scheduled to open before rush hour traffic today, relieving congestion for an endless stream of cars that have been traveling along smaller frontage roads, transportation officials said.
By Monday, two lanes are expected to be open in both directions, allowing commuters to zip north and south without stopping, said Kris Carson, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
The opening of the southbound segment of the road marks the first of three milestones on the way to wrapping up the project by next March, which covers a 2.5-mile stretch from Gulf-to-Bay to Whitney Road.
It’s an early sign the extra $4.8 million Gov. Rick Scott announced earlier this year to expedite the project is paying off.
“This is really the first step in making the traffic flow much better out there,” Carson said.
For motorists that have to hit the gas when pulling out of a parking lot into the sea of traffic that’s been diverted from the highway, there should be an immediate change.
“Once that traffic is moved up onto the bridges, it should be easier for people to pull out,” Carson said.
The $112-million project, started in 2009, is designed to allow motorists to speed by on a multilane highway, with parallel frontage roads for access to cross streets and business entrances.
It’s part of a larger multicounty U.S. 19 highway expansion that includes Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
This particular section of Clearwater runs through a busy commercial area making the lengthy road closures especially troublesome for commuters.
After traffic is shifted onto the new southbound roadway, contractors will remove what remains of the U.S. 19 bridge over Gulf-to-Bay and begin construction on the northbound section.
By October, traffic signals should be removed from the construction area and all vehicles should be off the frontage roads.
Barring unusually bad weather or other unforeseen calamities, DOT officials have said the job should be completely finished by next spring.
Clearwater city officials already have taken steps to prepare for the day when the entire U.S. 19 project is finished with a long-term redevelopment plan envisioning a new mix of businesses based on the new traffic patterns.
In the short-term, merchants along the corridor will be relieved to see the main highway reopen after years of gridlock.
“We’ve been waiting quite a while for that to open up,” said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Many have struggled or even gone out of business in recent years.
“I don’t know they’ll ever catch up completely, but certainly there will be some relief,” he said.