AVON PARK - Nearly two months since it was completed, the widening of 2.9 miles of U.S. 27 has helped motorists and both confounded and pleased businesses along its route.
Dec. 30, the widening from four to six lanes of U.S. 27 from Lake Isis Avenue north to the Highlands-Polk county line was officially completed, a $9,860,000 Florida Department of Transportation project. The road work included widening, milling resurfacing and adding turn lanes. Work was also done in Lake Place and on State Road 70 near the Highlands-Okeechobee county line.
The entire portion of the widening was originally to take 450 days but was finished in 666 days due to inclement weather and "unforseen extra work days," said Alice Ramos, a consultant with the FDOT and public information officer with the Valerin Group of Tampa, a public relations firm.
It was finished $148,000 under budget and all six lanes were opened to traffic just before Thanksgiving.
Stops in businesses north on U.S. 27 from Lake Isis Avenue in Avon Park Friday indicated owners have mostly a positive reaction to the result and are glad the project is finished. There were concerns about a few logistical and safety issues some of the owners spoken to brought up.
Debbie Cantell, co-owner of Market 27 convenient store and deli, 2830 U.S. 27, said she and co-owner James Gallenstein didn't sense the impact construction had on their business until after work was done. She said with lanes blocked off with barricades, older drivers have a hard time navigating turns into the store and barricades made it easy to miss.
Cantell said the widening has since made it safer to get in and out of the parking lot with the additional third lane and business has about doubled in the past four to five months for the same time in 2013.
"During construction, it tremendously affected us. We didn't realize the full effect of it until the (seasonal resident) season kicked back in and then, we were like, 'Wow'!"
Ramos said no additional costs were due to weather impacts, the only time added to the contract was to allow for completion. She said the undertaking also included the closure and creation of nine median openings and two new median openings. At one point, drivers had to go about 1.1 miles south to Royal Drive to make U-turns and then go back the same distance to get into businesses on the east side.
Although business has been steady, the widening has been a disappointment to Judy Henderson, owner of the Hair Depot Hair Loss Clinic, 2650 N. U.S. 27. She is a co-owner and her now-deceased husband J. G. Henderson had asked the FDOT to build a dedicated turn lane into their shop and was told it would be done, but it wasn't. She said cars continue to zip by and often don't have much leeway to turn into the hair salon.
"They didn't do it. There's no dedicated lane like they said they would do; it doesn't look like there's one to me," she said, standing her the shop's parking lot. I'm not happy about that, they did do some nice areas, especially the blacktop just north of here. They have grass there now," she commented.
The project was originally delayed about from August to June 2012 due to the discovery of sand skinks, a protected species. That problem was remedied by installing a silt fence around the lizards' location.
About a half mile south of the Hair Depot on the west side of U.S. 27, firefighter EMTs Herly Caceres and Adam Belcher were blowing leaves off the bay driveways of Highlands County Fire Services Station 1 Friday afternoon. Caceres said the widening has dispersed traffic since it done, making it easier for emergency vehicles to exit onto the highway. He said there is now "more room to work" and traffic flow is more fluid.
"We have better response times. We now have three lanes to work with and now we have another lane to use for access," he said.
During construction, the FDOT reported there were 192 weather days when work was delayed or halted and 24 extra work days