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There's no getting over this one

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published March 10, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Skip O' Rourke]
During rush hour recently, traffic on the northbound lanes of the Howard Frankland Bridge is backed up past the hump while the southbound lanes flow freely.

photo
[Times photo: Times file]
This July 18, 1991 photo of the Howard Frankland Bridge hints at the traffic jams to come.

It's a good day for Greg Gall if he can get to the hump of the Howard Frankland Bridge before being stopped by the sea of red tail lights.

Lately, good days have been few and far between.

"It's pretty frustrating, knowing it's going to take 45 minutes to an hour to get home," said Gall, 24, who lives in South Tampa and drives the bridge to and from his job at Franklin Templeton Investments off Ulmerton Road.

Drivers heading to Tampa are increasingly getting stuck in evening traffic jams on the northbound span. Even after the usual rush-hour delays. Even when there aren't any accidents.

Call it the Return of the Howard Frankenstein.

Experts point to a witches' brew of causes, including hockey games and concerts in downtown Tampa that tie up an overwhelmed stretch of Interstate 275, and growth in Pasco and Hernando counties that is funneling cars onto highways connecting to the bridge.

Then add in the fact that it's peak traffic season.

Traffic reporters, who see all of this from their helicopters, say there's a definite link between Tampa Bay Lightning games at the St. Pete Times Forum and late-evening traffic jams on the bridge miles away.

"Absolutely. There's no question that when you get 17,000 people going to a 7:30 game, the Howard Frankland is one of the main ways people get there," said Russ Handler of Metro Traffic, which does traffic reports for most local radio stations.

Some drivers are opting for the Gandy Bridge on hockey nights.

"You're taking a guess one way or the other. The Gandy isn't any bargain either," said John Atkinson, who lives in Feather Sound and has Lightning season tickets. "Traffic on the Howard Frankland varies quite a bit. Some nights it's very tough. Sometimes we've just blown right through there."

Highway officials say improvements are coming, though it'll take years. This summer, workers will start widening I-275 through Tampa. Someday they'll reconfigure the three-way interchange that drivers hit at the Tampa end of the bridge.

"We're very much aware of that issue" of traffic backups on the Howard Frankland, said Margaret Smith, district project manager for the state Department of Transportation.

"We have a bunch of projects in the pipeline that will help. We're trying to keep ahead of the development, which is difficult."

A killer reputation

For most of the day, traffic whips across the bridge at a steady 70 mph. It's the Tampa Bay area's main roadway, carrying nearly a quarter-million vehicles a day between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

But in its first three decades, from 1960 to 1990, the bridge earned a reputation as a death trap because of its gigantic backups and grisly head-on crashes. It was the Howard Frankenstein, the How Weird Frankland, the Car Strangled Banner. The eastbound and westbound lanes on its single narrow span were separated only by a thin, low median. There were no lights.

That reputation faded after the bridge was widened to eight lanes on two spans in 1993. But since then, traffic on it has risen 50 percent.

"The bridge is just real sensitive to any little thing. When it's going, it's good. But if there's any little hiccup, you're stuck," said Tim Harper, a Metro Traffic reporter who does evening broadcasts on WMNF-FM.

Tampa-bound drivers get the worst of it, especially in the late afternoons and evenings.

As she crosses the bridge every night, Beverly Littlejohn is thankful that she's heading home to St. Petersburg from her job at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

"It's worse for people going the other way," she said. "When I'm coming home, the eastbound traffic just looks like it's a parking lot the whole way across."

The difference is what's at each end of the bridge.

The southbound span whisks you to mid-Pinellas County, where the state recently spent five years and $62-million to widen the interstate from four to eight lanes and to rebuild major interchanges.

"When you get off the Howard Frankland southbound, you've got all this beautiful roadway," said Handler of Metro Traffic. "On the northbound side, it's all old infrastructure."

Help on the way

Some massive projects are under way to fix that.

On one front, the state is in the midst of a five-year, $200-million renovation of the tangled cluster of roads south and west of Tampa International Airport. That's supposed to wrap up in 2010.

Plans are afoot to widen the Veterans Expressway, where traffic has doubled since 1994 and is expected to double again in a decade.

But the main problem is that I-275 from the Howard Frankland to downtown Tampa is past due for a makeover. Drivers run the risk of bumper-to-bumper traffic there nearly any time of day.

State officials have talked about widening the freeway since the late 1980s. It got postponed again last year when bids for the job came in $100-million higher than expected.

Now, finally:

"Sometime in the summertime, people will see some work going on out there," said Smith, the DOT manager. "We will widen the roadway out. The ultimate outcome will be adding a lane in each direction."

They're splitting the job in half. First they'll do the part that's farther from the bridge - the interstate from the Hillsborough River to Himes Avenue.

They'll build new lanes just south of the highway. They've torn down dozens of houses to make room.

That's supposed to be done by 2010. The second part, from Himes to the bay, is supposed to be done by 2013. The revamped interstate is to have a wide median, leaving room for future mass transit.

Although construction hassles will be inevitable, lane closures will be limited to nighttime.

Said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson, "We won't be closing any lanes during rush hour."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at 813 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

Watch for traffic

These upcoming events at the St. Pete Times Forum may lead to backups on Interstate 275 and the Howard Frankland:

Tampa Bay Lightning home games: March 16, 20, 22, 24, 27, 31; April 3 and 6.

Tennis tournament: the Mercedes-Benz Classic, April 28.

Concerts: Lynyrd Skynyrd, April 13; My Chemical Romance, April 19; Andre Rieu, April 24; Christina Aguilera, May 4; The Police, July 11.

Traffic updates

For live updates on traffic conditions, and to sign up for e-mail updates and phone alerts, go to traffic.tampabay.com.

The future of I-275

To see a computer animation showing what a revamped Interstate 275 in Tampa will look like, go to links.tampabay.com.

Howard Frankland traffic

Daily total of northbound vehicles

2005 ... 122,500

2000 ... 114,000

1995 .... 85,000

1990 .... 72,800

1985 .... 70,900

1980 .... 52,800

1970 .... 32,600

Source: Florida Department of Transportation

Watch for traffic

These upcoming events at the St. Pete Times Forum may leads to backups on Interstate 275 and the Howard Frankland.

Tampa Bay Lightning home games: March 16, 20, 22, 24, 27, 31; April 3 and 6.

Tennis tournament: the Mercedes-Benz Classic, April 28.

Concerts: Lynyrd Skynyrd, April 13; My Chemical Romance, April 19; Andre Rieu, April 24; Christina Aguilera, May 4; The Police, July 11.

On the Web:

To see a computer animation showing what a revamped Interstate 275 in Tampa will look like, go to http://www.mytbi.com/urs/content/design/linksstageii/video.asp

[Last modified March 10, 2007, 02:07:39]


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