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By BILL COATS
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001
LUTZ -- Engineers were planning how to widen the bridges on Interstate 275 when serendipity struck: They figured out how to widen Bearss Avenue underneath it.
Consequently, one of north Hillsborough County's most ensnarled bottlenecks is scheduled to loosen up after the interstate widening is finished this year.
"It took one project making room for another project," said Ron Glass, design project manager on the I-275 widening for the Florida Department of Transportation.
First, the interstate bridge's sloped walls at Bearss will be dug out and replaced with vertical walls. In that space, four lanes of roadway will be built outside the bridge's pilings. Bearss will bulge from its current five lanes to eight lanes under the bridge. All traffic turning left or driving straight under the bridge will have double lanes.
"Capacity of the intersection is going to go way up," Glass said.
The change is years away. It must await completion of the interstate widening, expected this Christmas around Bearss. The Bearss funding starts in July 2002, and construction is to last well into 2004, costing up to $2-million.
New lanes will remove a key traffic complication. Currently, one lane in each direction is shared by left-turn drivers and through drivers. Someone waiting under a green light to turn left can hold up a long line of drivers who otherwise could travel straight through.
But the new arrangement will add a twist for traffic from the interstate. Drivers exiting I-275 and turning left will have to choose their lanes carefully because the leftmost lane of the exit ramp could lead them into a U-turn back onto the interstate.
Glass said the DOT plans to make that clear with signs early on the ramp.
"You will be in your proper lane before you even get to the intersection," Glass said.
Traffic on Bearss, which is crowded at nearly every intersection, slows the worst at I-275. "It's one of the highest accident-rated interchanges in the (Tampa Bay area)," Glass said.
Neighbors aren't confident that new capacity will improve things.
"As it is, we can't get out now," said Hester Bradley, a retired hospital housekeeper who lives on Fisher Road, two blocks southwest of the intersection. "It's going to make it worse."
Since a right-turn lane onto the interstate was added, drivers "go through there like they're going to a fire," she said.
Max Richard, also of Fisher Road, said neighbors especially dislike plans to eliminate left turns into, and out of, their neighborhood. That will force the neighbors into U-turns farther away on Bearss.
"The garbage people hate it. The school buses hate it. The ambulance people hate it. The firemen hate it," said Richard, who is retired. Richard asked for a traffic light at Fisher and Bearss, but none is planned.
Alan Gilbronson, a DOT traffic engineer, said left turns into the neighborhood have caused accidents, and the neighborhood's traffic is too sparse to justify a signal.
Sharon Sloan of Lutz endorsed the plans. Sloan must turn onto Bearss at Florida Avenue during rush hours en route to her job as a school nurse for Buchanan Middle School. "You can sit there for 10 minutes trying to turn right," she said. The widening "sounds like it's a solution."
The change originated nearly three nears ago as engineers planned the current widening of I-275 into its former medians. The job requires construction of new bridges that fill the spaces between the original dual bridges at each overpass. Sloped walls under the old bridges will have to be dug out to accommodate construction equipment.
Converting such space to traffic lanes was done six years ago in Pasco County, where State Road 54 passes under Interstate 75.
In Hillsborough, planners initially focused on the Fowler Avenue bridge, Glass said. Then they decided also to check the potential at Busch Boulevard, Fletcher Avenue and Bearss. Only Bearss had space for new lanes, Glass said.
- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or firstname.lastname@example.org.