CLEARWATER — It should be smoother sailing for motorists traveling U.S. 19 from Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard to Seville Boulevard, an area that has seemed like a permanent construction zone.
Southbound lanes on the main highway and two overpasses opened Friday morning, 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, which covers a 2½-mile stretch from Gulf-to-Bay to Whitney Road, by March.
It’s an early sign the extra $4.8 million Gov. Rick Scott announced 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.
The $112 million project started in 2009 and 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 expansion that includes Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.
This section of Clearwater runs through a busy commercial area, making the lengthy road closures especially troublesome for commuters.
Contractors will next 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 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 have taken steps to prepare for the day when the entire U.S. 19 project is finished; a long-term redevelopment plan envisions a new mix of businesses based on the traffic patterns.
In the short-term, though, 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.