TAMPA — Victor Crist learned the hard way to pay close attention whenever he leaves Tampa International Airport.
He doesn't want to wind up in the wrong county 20 miles out of his way. It has happened before — more than once — and he knows he's not alone.
That's because a $215 million road reconstruction project near the airport that was completed two years ago still confounds visitors and residents.
"It's very, very confusing,'' said Crist, a Hillsborough County commissioner and member of the board that oversees the airport. "There are some very short distances for drivers to make some quick decisions on where you are going. They can easily find themselves in the wrong lane going in the wrong direction. … We've been getting calls and complaints regarding the signage, and I know this is true from personal experience. Now I know better.''
Crist said he has raised the issue before with airport officials, who are sympathetic but say it's an issue for the Florida Department of Transportation. So he plans to raise the issue during Thursday's Hillsborough Aviation Authority Board meeting, to which the FDOT will send a representative.
While thinking he was headed from the airport toward Tampa, Crist said, he has ended up in St. Petersburg after taking the wrong exit off the George Bean Parkway. Signs twice warn motorists that there is no exit for 10 miles if they take the St. Petersburg exit, but that doesn't assuage the feeling of frustration, especially for first-time visitors dealing with unfamiliar territory in a rental car they've never driven before, Crist said.
That's especially true when they end up 10 miles away on the other side of Tampa Bay and have to figure out how to make the trek back across the Howard Frankland Bridge on Interstate 275. There are no westbound signs on the Pinellas side directing motorists back to Tampa, though if they take the first exit, to Fourth Street, they eventually can make a U-turn to get back to the Howard Frankland Bridge, although there are no signs for that, either.
Several roads lead in and out of the airport: I-275, U.S. 60, Eisenhower Boulevard and Veterans Expressway. The entrances to the airport from the north or south can be confusing, Crist said. Better signs going in and out of the airport are a must, he said.
Former Hillsborough County commissioner Joe Chillura, a Tampa architect, recently sent Crist an email laying out his concerns. Part of the problem, he wrote, is that St. Petersburg is on the right when motorists leave the airport but they must exit to the left to get there.
"Exit signage to a secondary destination are typically on a right turn exit ramp, not on the left side,'' Chillura wrote. "Additional preliminary signage as you depart the terminal informing drivers that they should bear left for St. Petersburg would help.''
Chillura wrote that the FDOT "created what I believe is visually intensive signage at the entry and exit of the terminal.'' He suggested the FDOT survey drivers and air travelers to determine the level of confusion.