Grand Prix and AirFest will bring traffic to a crawl. Plan for it or you'll wait in it.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published March 29, 2007
What do you get when you combine sleek jet fighters and powerful race cars?
Traffic Armageddon, maybe.
For the first time ever, two of the region's largest spectator events - Tampa's AirFest and St. Petersburg's Grand Prix - are about to happen at the same time. Expect jam-packed roads on both sides of Tampa Bay this weekend.
"Don't be surprised when you get into traffic and realize you should have left earlier," said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Coggins. "We have plenty of warning to know where the congestion is going to be. If you don't need to be in those areas, avoid them."
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the city's largest weekend event, drawing 100,000 paying spectators last year. Beginning Friday, it's expected to cause some traffic delays downtown and on Interstate 275 in Pinellas.
But AirFest is by far the bigger hassle because of its enormous crowds. Mind-numbing traffic jams are a fact of life for the popular free air show, which draws as many as 750,000 people to MacDill Air Force Base over two days.
For the last AirFest, in 2005, the line of southbound cars on S Dale Mabry Highway reached all the way to I-275, 6 miles away. In 2004, traffic inched along for hours on Dale Mabry, MacDill Avenue, the Gandy Bridge and the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
"People are going to need to be patient," said Lt. Omar Villarreal, a MacDill spokesman. "We're expecting almost 350,000 people to roll through here on a daily basis. The roads coming to the base, they're not that huge."
Tampa police will monitor the streets from a helicopter, beaming traffic photos to squad cars to direct them to trouble spots.
The base's gates at Dale Mabry and MacDill Avenue will open to the public at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday but will close to traffic when parking on the base is full - likely before the popular Blue Angels start performing at 3 p.m. each day.
"Once the base is closed to traffic, people have to walk in," Villarreal said. Electronic signs posted on roadsides will tell drivers when that has happened.
State troopers figure the Howard Frankland Bridge will be slow this weekend as well.
"Bay area bridges are going to be the best courses of attack to get into the AirFest," said the FHP's Coggins. "With two events going on, absolutely we're anticipating longer delays."
The Grand Prix event is actually a full slate of qualifying runs, practices, races and late concerts over three days. Racing fans typically flood downtown St. Petersburg, where a handful of streets between Central Avenue and Albert Whitted Airport already have been barricaded for the race course.
"We're certainly expecting that traffic's going to be heavy, both on the interstate and in the downtown area," said Joe Kubicki, the city's transportation director. "Hopefully, it'll be heavy but manageable."
His advice: Park at Tropicana Field and hop on a free shuttle to the races. The Looper Downtown Trolley also will be free this weekend.
These two major happenings have never crossed paths before and may never again.
The Grand Prix is in its third year in St. Petersburg. AirFest was canceled last year when military commitments stretched the Air Force too thin. In 2005, the air show and race were held on consecutive weekends.
St. Petersburg officials weren't happy to learn that AirFest would be competing with the Grand Prix this year, so the Air Force has pledged to avoid this situation in the future.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at 813 226-3435 or email@example.com.
Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Bus service: Downtown Tampa to MacDill: 8 a.m.-3 p.m. and back from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday. Downtown Tampa to MacDill: noon-3 p.m. and back from 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. $1.50 one way, 75 cents for seniors and youths, correct change required. Stops include Marion Street, Hyde Park Village and Britton Plaza.
More info: (813) 828-7469 or myairfest.com.
Time saving tips:
-Leave early. The gates open at 8 a.m. and traffic keeps piling up through the day.
-Try another entrance. Traffic heading for the Dale Mabry Highway gate is typically worse than at the lesser-known MacDill Avenue gate.
-Take the bus. For the first time, HART will run buses to the air show, from downtown Tampa to the MacDill Avenue gate. For a list of stops on Route 4, call (813) 254-4278 or go to hartline.org.
Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Hours: 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Friday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; and 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: General admission is $25 Friday or Saturday, $40 Sunday, $45 for three days. Pricier reserved seats are available.
Free trolleys: Stops include Tropicana Field, BayWalk, the Pier, Williams Park, Salvador Dali Museum and several hotels.
More info: (727) 898-4639 or gpstpete.com.
Time saving tip: Skip the downtown traffic entirely. Park at Tropicana Field (cost: $10) and catch a continually running free shuttle to the race course.
[Last modified March 28, 2007, 23:00:46]
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