What is that thing?

Custom lighting bridge will guide pilots to TIA's busiest runway at night or in fog.

Published March 17, 2007

TAMPA - Nearly 100,000 drivers pass beneath it every day, many glancing up and wondering, "What is that thing?"

It's a long metal strut, sort of a pale, creamy tan color, stretching low across 10 lanes of traffic near Tampa International Airport.

Motorists on Memorial Highway wonder if it's a new kind of pedestrian bridge, a monorail track, a utility pipeline, maybe a big hurricane-proof truss to hang road signs on.

"I get that question probably 10 times a week: 'What's that for? You guys going to land planes on that thing?'" said Sherman Johnson, a deputy project manager who's supervising the road construction all around it.

"It is a different-looking structure," agreed John McShaffrey, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.

So what is it?

The lights mounted along it, which were hooked up to electricity last week, are a good clue.

It's actually a custom-made support bridge to hold approach lights leading pilots to the airport's busiest runway.

The runway's old approach lights sat on a series of posts on the roadsides and in the median.

Those had to be scrapped because the highway is being significantly widened, and there was no room for them.

Engineers looking for a solution saw a similar structure outside Atlanta's airport, said TIA spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan. They designed their own version for Tampa.

The flashing lights were tested by the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday and will soon be turned on at night or in foggy weather, said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.

Obviously, planes have been finding the runway just fine for months without the lights; the airport has a battery of other high-tech systems to guide pilots.

But the new system will let planes land in worse weather than they could otherwise, Brown said. "You can bring in a flight that would have had to be diverted."

The odd-looking structure is smack in the middle of a vast construction zone.

Only half of it passes over the highway. The other half reaches over a wasteland of bulldozers and dirt that will soon be paved over. Ten lanes of traffic will become 22.

The state is midway through a five-year project to unravel congestion near the airport on Memorial Highway, State Road 60, the Courtney Campbell Parkway, Eisenhower Boulevard and Spruce Street.

Due date: spring 2010.

"People ask us, why does it take you four or five years to do a project like this?" said Johnson, the deputy project manager. "It's like open-heart surgery. We have to do all this while keeping the traffic flowing."

They're rearranging the whole network, building overpasses, taking out traffic lights and adding frontage roads. The goal is for drivers to get through there without ever making more than a single lane switch.

"It'll clear this place out," Johnson said. "You won't see the congestion anymore. It'll go away."

From the bird's-eye vantage point of an unfinished overpass nearby, Johnson looked down on the airport lighting bridge.

"People think it's relatively flat, but it's not. It has an upward curve. If you're standing at one end, you can't see someone at the other end," he said.

"The FAA came out and looked at it, and said they'd never seen anything like it.

"They called it a masterpiece."

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