Traffic reversal for hurricanes? Don't expect it

Limited benefits and complicated logistics usually rule out making long stretches of interstate one-way for evacuees, officials say.

Published September 29, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Less than a week after Hurricane Rita's approach turned Texas highways into massive parking lots, Florida officials gathered with Gov. Jeb Bush in a private meeting Wednesday to review the state's plans for reversing key arteries if needed for hurricane evacuations.

But forget visions of Interstate 75 and Interstate 95 turning into double northbound expressways for hundreds of miles.

It makes sense to reverse roads for only short distances between major metropolitan road systems, Bush said after the meeting. Otherwise, sending increased traffic in one direction to smaller areas that can't handle the swelled capacity would just create another bottleneck.

"You've got to end (reversed lanes) where the roads spread out," Bush said.

The most likely plan in the Tampa Bay area: Reverse the westbound side of Interstate 4, so the highway allows only double eastbound traffic from Interstate 275 in Tampa to Orlando.

Such orders won't happen often. In 1999, Bush ordered a comprehensive plan to reverse lanes in the wake of the traffic jams caused by the threat of Hurricane Floyd, but the state has yet to use it.

"It's not something you can wait until the day of the evacuation and do," Florida Emergency Management director Craig Fugate said. "You have to start at least 48 hours out."

Only once last year, during the state's unprecedented four-hurricane season, did state officials come close to putting in place what they called a "contraflow" plan: During the evacuation for Hurricane Frances, officials contemplated reversing the eastbound lanes of Central Florida's Bee Line Expressway to help speed traffic inland from coastal Brevard County.

But Fugate said the traffic flow never slowed enough to make it reasonable.

To reverse a roadway takes at least two hours to set up. Officials must make sure that police are at every interchange to prevent traffic from entering the highway against traffic flow, said Col. Chris Knight, director of the Florida Highway Patrol. Transportation officials also lay down traffic-counting devices so they can easily monitor the flow.

In the end, reversing lanes does not double traffic capacity, increasing it only about two-thirds because the road design and lack of traffic-facing reflectors require traffic to move more slowly. For the same reason, it will never be done at night because it's too dangerous, Fugate said.

"It's not something you just do without some parameters," Fugate said. "It's just another tool in our toolbox."

--Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com