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    An interchange's changes

    Plans for the notorious joining point of Interstates 4 and 275 should ease navigation. The downside? Work will take four years.

    By JAY CRIDLIN
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 26, 2002


    TAMPA -- How badly does Malfunction Junction need a makeover?

    Just ask the man who designed it.

    "It's about time," said Wallace Hawkes, who during the 1950s oversaw design of the downtown Tampa interchange between Interstates 4 and 275.

    Hawkes was on hand Friday for the groundbreaking of a four-year, $80-million renovation of the notorious intersection.

    "This has been a long time coming," said Mayor Dick Greco. "I guess we'll change it to "Functioning Junction' after it's over."

    The new plans for the interchange -- part of a $1.3-billion overhaul of Tampa's interstates during the next decade -- will increase its traffic capacity to 180,000 cars a day. The original design, Hawkes said, planned for about 35,000 cars per day.

    In the end, drivers will see a lot less weaving in and out of entrance and exit lanes.

    But talk about a Faustian deal. Untangling the knot that is Malfunction Junction will mean detours and delays until 2006.

    "Nothing you can do about it," said state Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, chairman of the Senate's Transportation Committee. "There's going to be frazzled nerves, people upset by the delays and the traffic cones and the Bob's Barricades, but that's the price of progress."

    Greco agreed: "It'd be nice if we could just drop it in tomorrow morning, but that's not the way it works."

    To understand the changes coming to Malfunction Junction, look at how the interchange is set up. Drivers entering I-275 from Ashley Drive have just seconds to merge with northbound traffic. When coming from southbound I-275, traffic enters I-4 on the left, not the right. And no matter what road they're on, drivers must merge from lane to lane to get to the downtown exits.

    The new setup will feature an extended Ashley Drive entrance ramp that stretches all the way to I-4. A new flyover ramp will connect southbound I-275 with the right side of eastbound I-4, making those merges less stressful. And a new auxiliary ramp system will separate all the I-4 and I-275 traffic heading into downtown Tampa from the through traffic.

    Additionally, I-275 will be widened to four lanes each way between I-4 and the Hillsborough River. More noise walls and green space will be added around the interchange.

    "This is the linchpin of our entire program," Sebesta said. "Everybody goes through this interchange, every man, woman and child in the bay area."

    Today will be the last day of freedom for motorists. Construction -- which will generally take place from 10 p.m.-5:30 a.m. -- is set to begin Sunday night.

    Some detours are already planned. Beginning sometime next year, the Ashley Drive entrance ramp will be closed for up to seven months while it is extended to I-4, meaning drivers will have to enter from the Orange Street/Scott Street entrance.

    During construction of the flyover ramp, which McShaffrey says could begin this year, cars headed north from downtown on I-275 at night will be routed onto eastbound I-4. Then, they'll exit at 21st Street, head back onto westbound I-4 and get back on I-275.

    "That type of work is going to have quite an impact on people," said DOT spokesman John McShaffrey.

    For large-scale events -- a Buccaneers night game or, potentially, the 2004 Republican National Convention -- McShaffrey said nightly construction could be scaled back to improve the flow of traffic.

    But when there's a Lightning game or concert at the St. Pete Times Forum, McShaffrey said drivers may be out of luck.

    "We're going to have to watch those events, but we're not going to be able to stop the contractor on all those, because they've got to get the job done," he said.

    On the positive side, McShaffrey noted, traffic moves so slowly through the interchange that construction may not hurt much.

    Future projects on the DOT's drawing board include a $133-million widening of I-4 from 14th Street east to 50th Street and a $202-million widening of I-275 from the Hillsborough River to the bay.

    And Malfunction Junction's prime competitor for the title of Tampa's Most Convoluted Interchange -- the stretch of road around Tampa International Airport connecting Spruce Street, SR 60, the Courtney Campbell Parkway and Veterans Expressway -- will get a $158-million facelift beginning in 2004.

    "When you know what's coming and you know it's not going to continue forever, you can put up with it," Sebesta said.

    What will change?

    Here are the highlights of changes at the I-4/I-275 interchange over the next four years:

    Motorists heading to downtown Tampa from I-4 or southbound I-275 will leave the interstates before reaching the interchange and will be routed onto new auxiliary roadways that will flow into Jefferson Street and Ashley Drive.

    A flyover ramp will be constructed allowing southbound I-275 traffic to merge into the right lane of I-4 instead of the left lane.

    The Ashley Drive entrance ramp to northbound I-275 will be extended all the way to I-4.

    I-275 will be widened to four lanes in both directions from the Hillsborough River through the I-4 interchange.

    Eight-foot noise walls will be placed near residential areas; landscaping will be added to improve underpass areas.

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