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U.S. 301 widening project begins in Parrish

PARRISH — A $21 million project to widen a 4.5-mile section of U.S. 301 has quietly begun, but it will be several weeks before drivers start feeling the effects.

Earlier this month, Woodruff & Sons Inc. began installing erosion-control fences along the highway between Old Tampa Road/Erie Road and County Road 675.

It’s the first visible sign of what will be a 1 1/2-year construction project to turn the rural two-lane road into an urban, four-lane divided highway with curb and gutter, street lights, sidewalks and bicycle lanes.

“I’m very excited about it,” said Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle, who represents the area. “I think everyone in Parrish will be pleased with it.”

The project is expected to be finished in early 2010, but motorists first will have to deal with lane closures, construction signs and traffic delays that likely will begin in earnest this summer.

Workers will clear land in the coming weeks to build a temporary northbound lane, said Maryann Grgic, spokeswoman for the North County Partnership, a business group that spearheaded the project.

Northbound traffic then will be switched over onto the new temporary lane, with southbound traffic shifting over to the existing northbound lane. Workers then will construct the new southbound lanes, shift traffic onto the new lanes when they are finished and then reconstruct the current lanes.

Access to businesses, cross streets and subdivisions will be maintained during construction, Grgic said.

New 6-foot-wide sidewalks will be built where there are gaps on both sides of the road, along with 4-foot-wide bike lanes on the shoulders, she said.

Also as part of the project, the U.S. 301/Fort Hamer Road intersection will be realigned to make it straighter.

The wider section of U.S. 301 also will get two new traffic signals: a regular signal at the Chin Road/Palm Boulevard intersection and an emergency signal in front of a Parrish Fire Control District station.

Residents of The Gardens, a manufactured home community fronting the intersection, have lobbied several years for a signal there.

Those pleas took on a greater urgency after the January 2008 death of a 77-year-old Gardens resident, who was struck by several cars while crossing U.S. 301 at the intersection.

That prompted the Florida Department of Transportation, which previously deemed a signal was not needed, to take another look. It later allowed the signal.

“I’m pretty glad to see they’ve started on it finally,” said Frank Look, a member of The Gardens’ homeowners association board who was active in campaigning for a signal.

“Everything is filling up so fast out here, and the new highway is definitely going to be needed, so I’m glad to see it’s coming.”

The project had been talked about for years, with officials saying a wider road was needed to handle traffic generated by the more than 12,000 new homes approved in the general area.

But little was done until 22 businessmen, including developers in the area, formed the partnership to get the project moving.

The partnership paid about $300,000 toward engineering and studies, and worked with landowners to donate four parcels needed for the project. It also helped Manatee County secure a $13 million state grant for the roadwork.

Still, various delays — including a revised construction timetable to avoid disturbing a nearby eagle’s nest — pushed back the project’s start date by at least six months.

“It’s been a long time coming, but the end result will be well worth the effort,” said Pat Neal, president of Neal Communities and one of the partnership’s members.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.