ESTERO — The long-awaited widening of U.S. 41 to six lanes in Estero has progressed with the recent opening of the northbound traffic lanes, while business owners remain anxious for the project's completion.
Crews shifted the two northbound travel lanes between County Road and San Carlos Boulevard to the recently constructed lanes on the east side of U.S. 41 about a week ago.
"The traffic shift went very well," said Debbie Tower, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Until the fall, southbound traffic will continue using the two travel lanes now used.
This will allow crews to construct lanes in the median in preparation for the fall 2012 traffic shift. In the fall, the two southbound lanes will use these new lanes in the median while crews construct final new southbound lanes on the west side of U.S. 41.
In addition, crews also reopened Broadway Avenue to traffic on Monday, six days sooner than planned, Tower said.
The $14.2 million project is expected to be completed in 2 1/2 years, which is in summer 2013.
Moreover, two additional openings for left turns and U-turns were opened at Woodsmoke Campground resort and at Cypress Bend, an RV resort, which reduces the distance to the next opportunity for left turns and U-turns.
"We are looking for completion in summer 2013," Tower said.
A $14.2 million widening from Corkscrew Road, north to San Carlos Park, began in January 2011 and has made the drive challenging for business owners and travelers.
"It's a 2-mile stretch of road and it's taking them forever," Greenway Landscape Supply owner Jim Ridinger said. "This is a snail pace out here."
Ridinger said the road construction has jeopardized his business. Greenway Landscape Supply is on the west side of U.S. 41 at 20190 U.S. 41 S., between Broadway Avenue West and Estero Parkway. Today, patrons can get to the store by using a back entrance on Trailside Drive or making a U-turn at the Estero Parkway traffic light.
"We are doing everything we can to get the project done as quickly as we can," Tower said. "This project is on schedule and the contractor is committed to getting work done on schedule as soon as possible to deliver the six-lane project to the local community and to Southwest Florida as a region."
This segment in Estero is the last stretch of U.S. 41 to be six lanes from downtown Fort Myers through Naples, east to Collier Boulevard.
Since Ridinger has lost so much business, he opened another store in January in Naples on U.S. 41 and Davis Boulevard. He said he is asking for a lease reduction at the Estero location.
Ridinger is upset that he no longer can place trees and bushes in the front of his store to advertise his business. Code enforcement has told business operators that they aren't allowed to place plants on the right of way.
"It's basically like kicking a guy when he is down," Ridinger said.
DOT said it continues to make the work zone tolerable.
"If your destination is in the work zone, you can get there," Tower said.
While the median is under construction, U-turns and left turns will be allowed only at Corkscrew Road, County Road, Broadway Avenue, Estero Parkway, Vintage Parkway/Breckenridge Drive, Hickory Drive and San Carlos Boulevard. That's in addition to the newly opened ones at Woodsmoke Campground and Cypress Bend.
"We are telling drivers to plan extra travel time; we are asking drivers and members of the community to be our partners in safety; don't speed, don't tailgate and avoid distractions," Tower said. "Courtesy, caution and patience go a long way toward safety."
Not all merchants say business has been slow since the widening project started.
The four-lane stretch of highway is the final widening of U.S. 41 so that it is six lanes from the Caloosahatchee River Bridge in Fort Myers to Collier Boulevard, east of Naples.
At Estero River Outfitters, owner Paula Stuller said construction isn't hurting her business. Instead, it has lured new patrons to the area because traffic is slowing down.
"Our business is up." Stuller said. "We are doing good."
Stuller said the store has had an excellent year compared to January through April of last year. Estero River Outfitters, 20991 U.S. 41 S., is on the east side of U.S. 41.
"We are more visible to the road than we were before," she said, adding that customers aren't having any problems getting into the store.
The widening of U.S. 41 to six lanes in Estero was inevitable.
"It was always coming," said Stuller, whose business has been open 36 years and has gone through past widening projects. "It doesn't make it any worse that it is here. I think it will be really nice when it is done."