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Worth a buck? Time will tell

By TIMES STAFF WRITER
Published July 19, 2006


[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The first cars on the Crosstown Expressway's elevated section leave Brandon toward Tampa this morning.

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
A driver exits the new elevated portion of the Crosstown Expressway early Tuesday morning, crossing Twiggs Street and continuing on Meridian Street.

Go to Times video

Smooth opening for Crosstown

Interactive Graphic: Map and how it works

So the opening of the express lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway gave me an excuse to actually see some of my neighbors.

I'm one of those rare breeds who live and work in the suburbs, so there's very little cause for me to roll out of my Brandon home, much less out of bed, at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m.

But there I was, taking one on the chin for you, dear commuter, when I met my co-workers at the Borders in Brandon close to 7 a.m. Tuesday. My duty was to take the ground-level Selmon Expressway route. At first I thought I was the lucky one, unlike my co-worker on the elevated lanes. Then I realized, if concrete were to start falling, the laws of gravity would leave me at the graver disadvantage.

But no such mishaps occurred. By the looks of traffic, either motorists had not caught on that the express lanes were open - despite the flashing roadside signs that read "Express lanes open" - or they didn't have a SunPass. Or maybe they were playing it safe.

On our first go-around, we left at 7:12 a.m. At 7:30 a.m., I pulled up to the County Center in downtown Tampa. A total of 18 minutes and 11 miles.

Expressway traffic, while heavy, moved steadily, from 20 mph to 55 mph. (The speed limit is 50 mph.)

Taking the trip an hour later, at 8:06 a.m., proved much slower, a total of 29 minutes from the Brandon Borders to the County Center downtown. This time, traffic crawled on the expressway at 5 mph near the Ybor City exit.

At the slowest points, I looked up to see the tops of cars zooming above the lip of roadway. Certainly they had the better view: skyline and clouds. Down here, we had construction workers in the median and dump trucks lumbering into traffic, below the belly of a giant concrete centipede.

- SAUNDRA AMRHEIN

Who knows if this mass of concrete will stand forever or buckle?

Who knows how many suburbanites will risk the trip across a road raised 63 feet above the sand to shave minutes from a haul to the office?

Who knows?

But the roadside signs flashed "Express lanes open" in the dawn of Tuesday, so we joined a few pilgrims leaving Brandon westbound at 7:13 a.m. and soared toward a brownish-blue Tampa skyline.

Traffic: light.

Speed: 65 mph.

Feeling: George Jetson.

For real.

Lee Roy Selmon should be proud. Maybe this excitement will fade when the new wears off and the expressway becomes the (expletive) expressway. But for now, the trip across the back of this concrete centipede is song-worthy. I Can't Drive 55, maybe. Or Thunder Road.

For perspective, peer over the edge to the north and down upon the trail of brake lights on the lower lanes. And farther north, on Adamo Drive, on the strand of traffic lights and people sitting, stewing.

It's okay to laugh at them.

Sure, Tampa from this high is less than pretty: rooftops and the backs of buildings and the rusted skeletons of the shipyards. Look, there, Buddy's Home Furnishings! And there, on the hazy distance, a McDonald's!

But who needs a view when you can make it to work in the time that it takes to eat a bagel.

Here comes the exit for downtown, and the watch says 7:22. By the time I'm at my destination, it's been 12 minutes suburb to city.

They charge a dollar for toll. It should cost two.

- BEN MONTGOMERY

With the partial opening of the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, east Hillsborough motorists have a new choice. The Times sent reporters to test drive commuter routes Tuesday morning, one on the new lanes, one on the ground-level Selmon Expressway and one on State Road 60. They left from Borders, 2020 Town Center Blvd., Brandon, and ended at the County Center downtown. The ground rules (which of course were followed) were to go the speed limit or at a safe speed with the flow of traffic.

I'm driving State Road 60 from Brandon to Tampa on Tuesday morning, trailing a pickup packed with shakily stacked furniture parts.

Bad idea? It seems preferable to the other lane, where I'd be following a rock-hauling truck spitting pebbles.

But then a small desk drawer falls from the pickup and into my path. I brace, swerve around it safely and resume my drive.

I sigh and look up to my left, where my colleague Ben Montgomery is breezily zipping along the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

Actually, by now, Ben's probably chilling at our destination, the County Center, while I'm down here dodging rocks and drawers and low-rent strip clubs. Our colleague Saundra Amrhein is taking the old-school expressway.

Actually, my two runs from the Brandon Borders go okay. Both times, though, it takes several more minutes to cover the final blocks on traffic-jammed Kennedy Boulevard.

My first run on the 11-mile stretch takes 28 minutes, from 7:12 to 7:40 a.m. I hit six red lights, mostly in Brandon.

The second takes 31 minutes, from 8:06 to 8:37. I hit three red lights and actually make better time until I reach downtown, where Kennedy is backed up past Meridian Avenue. Ugh.

So it's not the fastest path. However, those of us cautious about new construction - Big Dig, anyone? - might not mind 60 so much.

Drawers and rocks are one thing, but you never have to worry about anything collapsing beneath you - or on top of you.

- RICK GERSHMAN

[Last modified July 19, 2006, 06:45:56]


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