tampabay.com

Crosstown makes history; commuters save time

Drivers who dared to be first on the problem-plagued, delayed road like their shorter commute.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published July 19, 2006


BRANDON - During the past 1,300 days, it had become a public albatross, a project plagued by delays, with a swelling price tag, a frightening structural collapse, a high-profile firing and a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.

Early Tuesday, it became a road.

And not just any road, but rather a long-awaited one for residents of eastern Hillsborough County who commute to Tampa.

When the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway opened at 6 a.m., the calamities of the past melted away with the first drivers eager for an upper-deck alternative to the clogged rush-hour schlep below.

"I think it's going to be worth it," said Roy Schiro, 69, who works for a Brandon pest control company and often makes the trek to Tampa. He arrived at 5:45 a.m.

When the light turned green, Schiro and a handful of other drivers stepped on the gas, honked their horns and waved goodbye to the TV cameras and photographers documenting the occasion.

"Look at 'em!" shouted Ben Muns, chief engineer for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. "God, they're happy."

And they should be.

Commuters who tried the elevated lanes Tuesday morning marveled at how much faster they reached downtown.

Ray Eydmann, who works for Tampa Electric, has taken the Crosstown for 13 years. He leaves early each day to nab a downtown parking meter for his BMW motorcycle. Now he can sleep a little longer and enjoy a more scenic drive.

"It's kind of a different look being up there," he said. "There's no trees, no nothing up there. It's just a whole different perspective."

It's a perspective Vince Arcuri likes.

"It was very smooth, smooth as glass. It's going to be a huge improvement," said Arcuri, who lives in Valrico and takes the Crosstown on his way to work in St. Petersburg. He said the new toll road shaved 15 minutes off his commute.

This was the warm reception officials had envisioned years ago when the idea of elevated express lanes first took root.

Their vision proved easier than reality. One disaster after another dogged the project. The biggest came April 13, 2004, when part of the unfinished highway collapsed after a support column sank 11 feet into the earth.

But workers pressed on. On Tuesday, a year past schedule, their work paid off.

Even then, problems remained. Some drivers complained that the 78th Street entrance didn't open on time or that traffic bottlenecked at the Twiggs Street exit. Some wondered why they had to exit the Crosstown at one point and get back on to continue toward MacDill Air Force Base. Others made wrong turns when they arrived downtown.

Then there were those scared to venture onto the span, which at its peak hovers more than 60 feet above the road below.

The day brought mostly joy to those behind the project.

"That original vision got carried through all the way to the end of the project," said Harold Aldrich, a consultant. "All of us who were there at the beginning today feel pleased and proud."

He said residents also should feel proud to have such an impressive structure in Hillsborough County. "Was it worth it? The answer to that is a definite yes," Aldrich said.

He said long after the past troubles with the road are forgotten, "the project will be there serving the community. It'll probably be standing 100 years from now. It's going to be an icon."