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    No relief in sight for area commute

    Continuing upgrades to two aging highways - Interstates 4 and 275 - will keep drivers on their toes.

    [Times photo: Dirk Shadd]
    Construction barrels clutter the shoulder as traffic from Gandy Boulevard merges with northbound traffic on Interstate 275 in Pinellas County.

    By JEAN HELLER

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001


    Working on the interstates:
    A map of the planned work
    photo
    [Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
    Construction continues along Interstate 4 between Hillsborough Avenue and Dr, Martin Luther King Boulevard. This view is looking west with the MLK interchange at the top of the photo.
    There are those who feel the reconstruction of Interstate 4 has been going on forever. It hasn't. But there are children who will be entering the first grade next fall born after the road project began.

    While I-4 arguably has been the longest and most disruptive of the interstate construction projects in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in recent years, it is by no means the only one. And more are coming.

    In addition to the work on I-4, there are five projects along Interstate 275 in Pinellas and Hillsborough either under way or about to start and two more nasty ones coming in 2002 and 2003 on I-4.

    A look at what is going on, from south to north, what they cost and what will be accomplished:

    I-275 between 54th Avenue S and 26 Avenue S in St. Petersburg.

    The state Department of Transportation is tearing up cracked, broken and cratered concrete slabs and replacing them with new concrete that dries overnight.

    The speed with which the work must be done in order to limit lane closures to nighttime hours doesn't leave workers time to fine-tune the new concrete to ensure that it is smooth or even with adjacent slabs.

    So when slab replacement is finished in mid-March, new crews will grind all the concrete smooth and level.

    "We're getting a lot of complaints from motorists who don't like the choppy feel," said DOT spokesman John McShaffrey. "But it doesn't make sense to grind it piecemeal, not to mention it would be prohibitively expensive."

    The grinding and smoothing will be finished by August. The project cost is $5.7-million.

    I-275 between Gandy Boulevard and Roosevelt Boulevard in Pinellas County.

    Both northbound and southbound roadways are being widened from two lanes to three. As early as the end of the month, all three northbound lanes will be open with Sunday-through-Thursday night closures of the old lanes to replace damaged concrete slabs.

    In the next three to four weeks, there will be some night closures of the ramp from northbound I-275 onto westbound and eastbound Roosevelt to repair those broken-up roadways. Detours will be set up and marked.

    Within the month, southbound traffic will be moved to the two inside lanes, and construction will begin on a third lane on the outside of the road.

    "Everybody needs to be watching for the lane shifts that will happen in both directions in the next few weeks," McShaffrey said.

    The good news is the project will be completed by fall at a cost of $8-million.

    The bad news:

    I-275 between Roosevelt and Fourth Street N in Pinellas.

    The work will begin there sometime between August of this year and February 2002. The goal is the same as the section to the south, widen the northbound and southbound roadways to three lanes and replace broken concrete.

    The price tag is $23-million.

    All of the I-275 work is required by the interstate's age and an increase in traffic. Some sections of the road date back nearly a quarter of a century.

    I-4 from 50th Street to the Polk County line in Hillsborough County.

    This project has been ongoing since 1995, but McShaffrey said it is ahead of schedule now and should be completed by fall.

    "It has taken so long because we did a complete reconstruction of the entire road to bring it up to today's standards," he said. "And we completely redid the exit ramps. They used to go up and down so steeply we called it the roller-coaster effect. We also widened the median to provide space for high-speed rail, if it comes."

    The cost of the project is $350-million.

    Next year, DOT will begin the reconstruction of the I-4/I-275 interchange, a project everyone believes could become a traffic nightmare. A year later, the agency will begin widening and reconstructing I-4 between 50th and 14th streets.

    I-275 between Busch Boulevard and U.S. 41.

    This is really two projects, breaking at Fletcher Avenue. The object is to widen the road in each direction from two to three lanes. But the construction work has caused monstrous traffic delays in both directions, even in the middle of the day.

    It won't end soon. The stretch from Busch to Fletcher is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2002. The stretch from Fletcher to U.S. 41 won't be wrapped up until the end of 2002.

    - Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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