TAMPA — Relief is on the way for motorists heading in and out of Tampa International Airport.
The Florida Department of Transportation plans to install large airport symbols on the highway lanes leading from the Courtney Campbell Parkway and the Veterans Expressway to help guide motorists to the airport. Those should be in place by March.
A similar fix will be studied for motorists leaving the airport to help guide them in the right direction.
The changes were laid out Thursday at a meeting of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority board in response to numerous complaints from airport visitors, including board member Victor Crist, a Hillsborough County commissioner. He said he has mistakenly wound up in St. Petersburg when he meant to go to Tampa.
"These are significant changes that will make a big difference,'' Crist said. He suggested more changes to the overhead signs already in place.
Fellow board member Joseph Diaco said he also has had problems getting in and out of the airport he helps oversee.
"I thought I was the only stupid one getting confused,'' said Diaco, a physician. "If you don't pay attention every minute you can end up in St. Pete. … You almost have to be a Rhodes Scholar. I think this is a great thing you're doing.''
Putting large directional markings in the highway lanes was the top solution suggested by readers who emailed the Tampa Bay Times about their own experiences trying to get in and out of the airport.
"Wow! My husband and I who live in Palm Harbor have rarely managed a straight-forward entrance or exit from the Tampa airport,'' wrote Lori Farrington. "Each time we feel rather secure, unfortunately, when we return we find at least one directional sign confusing and miss the proper entrance or exit. … We have friends who travel back and forth to the airport much more frequently than we do and even they have encountered confusion with the signs both entering and leaving the Tampa airport.''
Even a GPS device is no guarantee, one reader wrote.
"I agree that getting on the right road from the airport is confusing,'' wrote Maria Brink. "Coming from the Tampa Airport the GPS told us keep left and left we went. We ended up driving to the next intersection and made a U-turn to once again try to find the right exit to Zephyrhills.''
Other readers, however, offered a simpler solution: Pay attention and you won't get lost.
Part of the credit for the new road labels goes to Google street maps.
Kevin Dunn, district signage and pavement marking manager for the FDOT, said it was only after carefully reviewing the State Road 60 approach to the airport on recently updated Google street maps that he appreciated the confusion motorists were experiencing.
That was when it became clear to him that motorists coming from the Veterans or the Courtney Campbell, who must change lanes to get to the airport, can easily miss a critical directional sign and wind up on Spruce Street, Dunn said. They then must make a U-turn to get to the airport. A sign will be relocated, but the markings in the lanes of the highway will be the most visible change.
The new markings will be 6 feet by 9 feet and display the international symbol for airports, Dunn said.
A similar solution will be studied for those leaving the airport so they do not have to crane their necks to look at the large directional signs over the lanes.
Motorists who miss their exit and wind up heading to St. Petersburg are often stunned to discover the next exit is 10 miles away, though two large signs warn them of that, beginning nearly a mile from the exit ramp.
And once they get to St. Petersburg, no signs direct them back to Tampa. If they take Fourth Street, the first exit they get to, they must make a U-turn at an unmarked median.
That should change too, said Al Illustrato, vice president of TIA facilities and customer services.
Signs along Interstate 275 should clearly tell motorists how to get back to Tampa, he said. "I want them to know right away how to get back,'' he told Dunn after the meeting.
Dunn agreed to take a look at that, too.