Elevated lanes lift view and spirits
The first drivers to cruise the problem-plagued Selmon Expressway say they like the shorter commute.
By BRADY DENNIS, ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, ELISABETH DYSER and JONNELLE MARTE
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. In several test drives by St. Petersburg Times reporters, the new section cut 6 to 16 minutes from the Brandon-to-Tampa drive.
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.
Pat McCue, then the executive director of the Expressway Authority, promised to build "the most beautiful road around," a "bridge to the future," "the most technologically advanced transportation facility in the world." He said he wanted it to stand the test of time, much like the Roman aqueduct system.
But 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. Concrete chunks the size of fists rained onto cars below.
In the aftermath, officials scrambled to assure frightened commuters the road would be safe to drive on when it finally opened. McCue lost his job, and legislators threatened to disband the authority. The authority filed a lawsuit against the project's main engineers. Roughly three-fourths of the support pillars had to be reinforced to prevent another collapse, which added $100-million to the $350-million price tag.
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 in downtown Tampa.
Then there were those scared to venture onto the span, which at its peak hovers more than 60 feet above the road below.
"I would walk to MacDill (Air Force Base) before I'd get on that upper level. And I don't want to be on the lower level when it comes down on top of me, either," said Jennifer Kodalen of Valrico.
She said she will continue to use the original Crosstown but leave the new express lanes to others. "They just have more faith than I do. Everybody can prove me wrong. That would be awesome."
Ralph Mervine, executive director of the expressway authority, tried Tuesday to ease the fears of those like Kodalen.
"We understand people's concerns," Mervine said. "We haven't cut any corners on making repairs."
That aside, 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 who worked on the project since its inception. "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. "It'll have a tremendous impact on relieving traffic congestion."
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."
For now, officials will open the three westbound lanes to Tampa each day from 6 to 10 a.m. Mervine said work continues on the eastbound toll system. When that is done, presumably in late August, officials plan to reverse the lanes each afternoon about 3 p.m., sending rush-hour traffic from downtown Tampa to Brandon.
Also, until proper equipment is installed in a control room in Tampa, possibly in October, workers must open and close the gates to the elevated lanes manually each day.
By 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, more than 1,500 cars had used the new road. That's light compared to the 6,000 commuters officials soon expect to use it during morning rush hours.
The road is open only to drivers with a SunPass transponder, and the toll for now will remain at $1. Unless, of course, you plan to mimic the driver of a black Corvette, who received the elevated highway's first ticket after racing 81 mph toward the Tampa skyline in the predawn darkness.
The speed limit is 60.