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17th Street work begins after years of waiting

PALMETTO — It took more than a decade, but 17th Street is about to be improved.

Manatee County has begun widening the road between U.S. 41 and Canal Road and will open bids next week to improve the section between U.S. 41 and Eighth Avenue West, officials said Tuesday.

For those who have lobbied the county to improve the two-lane road, it’s been a long wait.

“I’ve been pushing for this for 14 years, so you know it’s been a long time,” said county Commission Chairwoman Gwen Brown, who represents the area. “I did not think it would take that long. My God, it took a long time.”

Palmetto officials and residents had long advocated improving the street, considered the main thoroughfare for the city’s black community. Several institutions, including Lincoln Middle School, the Palmetto Youth Center and churches, line the road that connects the historically black communities of Palmetto and Memphis.

Yet that status didn’t prevent the road from becoming obsolete and, in the eyes of some residents, neglected.

Its travel lanes are so narrow at points that large trucks have to edge off the pavement when oncoming traffic passes, forming troughs in the shoulder. There’s no bike lane, forcing bicyclists to either ride in the road or on the sidewalk — which has gaps and is immediately next to the pavement in some areas. And the CSX railroad crossing between Fifth and Sixth avenues west rises several feet above the road and is so rough that drivers frequently slow down to cross it.

Improving the street first landed on the county’s to-do list in 1999, but a series of delays ensued.

The primary culprit was the county’s struggles to get the land needed for the projects. The county filed several eminent domain lawsuits that took months or years to resolve.

“Some of the eminent domain was done to get the property straight,” Brown said. “Some properties had so many owners that eminent domain was the only way to get the title straightened out.”

The county also had to contend with contamination issues at some sites, said Tim Hochuli, the county’s deputy director of project management. But county officials pressed on, securing the final piece of property in March.

A month later, a county contractor began working on the portion east of U.S. 41.

Plans call for building a four-lane, divided road, said Paul Schamell, a county project manager. It will have curbs and gutters, underground drainage, street lights and sidewalks and bike paths on both sides at its expected completion in July 2010.

“We’re doing the full nine yards,” he said.

The eastern project includes the U.S. 41/17th Street intersection, where 17th Street traffic frequently backs up because of a lack of turn lanes. The county will widen the intersection’s 17th Street legs to three lanes: One to turn left, one to go through and one to turn right, Schamell said.

Turn lanes also will be added on 17th Street at Canal Road.

As for the portion west of U.S. 41, the county will open bids next week and expects construction to start in October, he said.

That project will maintain the road’s two current lanes, but will widen the travel lanes and add bike lanes, sidewalks, street lights and landscaping. The railroad crossing will be smoothed out and a portion of Bayshore Road will be straightened so that it meets 17th Street at a right angle.

The project likely will be finished in early 2011.

That can’t come soon enough for Brown and others who have sought the improvements all these years.

“It’s going to be hectic for a while, but when it’s done it will be a beautiful sight,” she said.

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