By JAY CRIDLIN
TAMPA -- Liz Dunham can remember when it took just 15 minutes to reach downtown Tampa. Back in the 1960s, she says, you could simply head south on Nebraska Avenue, and before you knew it, you were there.
Times have changed.
On a recent morning, it took Dunham more than an hour to drive to her downtown office from her home in Lutz.
The difference between then and now?
"A good day is maybe 35, 40 minutes," said Dunham, the director of collections and exhibitions at the Tampa Bay History Center, of her daily drive down construction-riddled Interstate 275.
Drivers should get used to the sight of road signs and orange barrels. During the next 10 years, officials will spend more than $1-billion to smooth the flow of traffic on nearly every major road in Hillsborough County.
Projects that range from an untangling of Malfunction Junction to an elevated expressway linking Tampa and Brandon are part of a long-term plan to alleviate traffic snarls, bringing much-needed relief to commuters who are fed up with backups.
"Our interstate system is a good 20 years past its prime," said Ron Glass, the Department of Transportation's design project manager. "Not only in the condition of the pavement in the bridges, but also in the capacity to handle a volume of cars."
The problem is not necessarily the design of the roadways, Glass says, but an explosion in the number of drivers on the interstate. In the 1960s, when the interstates were constructed, about 65,000 cars were expected to use them each day.
Today, nearly 160,000 vehicles travel through the I-275 and I-4 interchange on a typical day.
The need for improved transportation was driven home last October when Tampa was rejected as a potential host for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The U.S. Olympic selection committee gave the Tampa Bay region a grade of zero in the category of transportation. In the committee's eyes, there was simply no way Tampa could reduce traffic congestion or install a high-speed rail system in time for the Olympics.
By the time 2012 does roll around, though, Tampa Bay drivers will see some changes.
Malfunction Junction, the notorious downtown intersection of I-275 and I-4, should see some improvement from work scheduled to begin this fall. But don't expect a miracle.
"This is not the ultimate downtown reconstruction," Glass said. "As an interim project, we feel this will have quite a long life of improved operation while the rest of the interstate's network around downtown slowly gets brought up to a higher level."
Drivers who enter I-275 from Ashley Drive now must quickly merge into traffic and weave across two lanes to stay on I-275. With the improvements, the Ashley entrance ramp will become its own lane and flow all the way into I-4, giving more time for drivers wishing to get to I-275 to move across the lanes.
Drivers heading for downtown from I-4 westbound or I-275 southbound will also see a big change. New auxiliary lanes will take all downtown traffic directly from I-4 and I-275 to downtown distribution lanes, separating them from through traffic.
Construction on the $90-million Malfunction Junction project will take until 2006.
The first major project to be completed will be a $350-million elevated highway over the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
Its three new lanes will flow into Tampa during morning rush hour, and out to Brandon in the evenings. The rest of the time, the 9-mile bridge will remain closed.
Signs and railroad-style crossing signals should prevent confused commuters from driving the wrong way on the bridge. Drivers who get past the signs will be stopped by a large net, similar to the type used to stop jets on aircraft carriers, that would drop from above and snag the car before it encounters oncoming traffic.
Preliminary construction on this project already has kicked off in Brandon. The road is scheduled to open by 2005.
Memorial Highway interchanges
One of the most convoluted stretches of highway in Tampa will get a $152-million makeover, starting in 2004.
The stoplights at the intersection of Memorial and the Courtney Campbell Parkway will be eliminated in favor of a multilayered interchange. Motorists on Memorial bound for Rocky Point or Clearwater will head west without being stopped by a light or having to negotiate the tight curve there now. The same will hold true for drivers heading from Courtney Campbell to the Veterans Expressway northbound: no light, no sharp curve.
South of this, the Department of Transportation plans to rebuild the interchange around the entrance to and exit from Tampa International Airport. The goal is to lessen the amount of lane-changing that motorists encounter in this area.
Glass said this project is taking longer than originally expected because of height and construction restrictions resulting from its proximity to an airport runway, but it should be complete by 2008.
I-275 downtown expansion
The stretch of I-275 that runs through central Tampa will be rebuilt, starting in 2006. It's expected to take six years to complete.
Four new northbound lanes will be constructed a block to the south of the interstate between the Howard Frankland and the Hillsborough River bridges, and four new southbound lanes will replace the current southbound lanes.
Glass likens this $202-million reconstruction to the reconstruction of I-4, in that it will flatten out the road and eliminate dips and swerves. "Roller-coaster short little curves, very quick little on and off ramps -- all that stuff is going to be gone," he said.
During the construction, northbound traffic will switch to the new northbound lanes when they are completed, while southbound traffic will move to the current northbound lanes. When the southbound lanes are refurbished, the current northbound lanes will then be converted to an empty median that could someday be used for express lanes or a high-speed commuter rail.
Acquisition of rights of way bordering the interstate is scheduled to begin within the next year.
Starting next summer, I-4 will be expanded from two lanes in each direction to four between 14th Street and 50th Street. The $140-million project is the final phase in the rebuilding of I-4 from downtown Tampa to the Polk County line.
As is the case with the I-275 expansion, construction on I-4 will provide median space that could be used for a possible commuter rail system.
"Maybe light rail is not the answer today, but maybe 20 years from now it will be," said Sandy MacKinnon, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "Is a light rail system in the stars? Does it need to be subsidized? Yes."
At least three other major projects may get under way within a decade.
The DOT is studying whether to expand I-75 by at least one lane in each direction between the Fowler Avenue exit and Pasco County. A design is budgeted for 2004-05, though no dates or costs have been set.
Another proposal is a road that would link I-4 with the Crosstown Expressway, giving the thousands of trucks that go into and out of the Port of Tampa each day an easier path. At current costs, Glass said, the project would be $140-million.
Another possible future project is an improved entrance ramp from Memorial Avenue onto I-275 northbound.
Glass says that the reconfiguration of Tampa Bay's interstates and roadways is a decades-long process, and that every project is simply an improvement until the next stage in the process can be reached.
"You build up with each step, adding a little more benefit and allowing the traffic to be handled as it increases," he said.
"Planning has gotten a lot more sophisticated than it was 30 years ago, and I have every confidence that it'll be even more sophisticated 20 years from now."
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