Thursday, February 22, 2018
News Roundup

Commuters may hit rough roads during RNC

BRANDON

Norbert Gobin is thankful that he's retiring this month.

It's the end of his 25 years commuting to MacDill Air Force Base from Valrico.

Which means Gobin, who publishes a newsletter for bus riders who commute from Valrico to the base, won't have to deal with possible road closures and standstill traffic during the week of the Republican National Convention.

"Somehow, downtown's got to be completely avoided," said Gobin, 61, who travels by car or bus to work at U.S. Special Operations Command. "What I foresee is gridlock on (Interstate) 275 and I-4 and downtown. I don't think that traffic is going to be moving."

Transportation details haven't been finalized for the week of Aug. 27-30, when the RNC threatens to lengthen or stall commutes for thousands of suburbanites heading to work in Tampa.

Local agencies are waiting for the Secret Service to set a security perimeter around the convention site, the Tampa Bay Times Forum. It's expected to be announced four to six weeks before the event.

"Our whole goal will be that people know before they go which roads are closed and which roads are impacted," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

Her advice to residents: Like trying to get to the airport during a Super Bowl, "you don't cancel your flight. You just plan accordingly. You might take a different route. You might leave earlier."

Most of the convention-related traffic will flow during off-peak hours, in the early afternoon, McElroy said. And additional vehicles on the road will likely be buses.

"While we expect 50,000 people in town, we certainly don't expect 50,000 cars," she said.

A game-changer for many east Hillsborough commuters, though, is the possible closure of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. It swings by the forum and the media hub at the Tampa Bay Convention Center, prompting many to wonder if the toll road will close partially or in full.

No official word yet on that, said Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority spokeswoman Sue Chrzan.

"We can't control it," she said. "If they want to close it, they're going to have to figure out how to close it."

One catch: The toll road depends on steady revenue to pay off the bonds that funded it, Chrzan said. So if the road closes, someone has to be willing to pay.

Some 50,000 vehicles travel the toll road on the average August weekday, she said.

The waiting game has residents already mapping out alternate routes.

"It's certainly watercooler talk," said Troy Hensley, 48, who lives in Brandon and works on-base at U.S. Central Command.

He expects his 40-minute commute to extend by another half-hour during the RNC.

Instead of closing the expressway entirely, he hopes a more accessible solution will arise: Keep traffic moving near convention sites, add security, restrict trucks or only allow public transit buses.

"It's just going to make it rough," Hensley said. "That first commute may be telling."

But he said the inconvenience to his daily drive is outshined by the attention and business the convention will bring to the city.

An easy option for drivers heading to MacDill may be hopping on the regular commuter buses.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit does not expect to reduce services into downtown, according to spokeswoman Marcia Mejia. HART may consider detours or temporary bus stops, depending on the security zone.

Mejia was unsure whether HART will see an increase in ridership. Last August, 28,250 people rode the nine express routes from the suburbs into downtown and three express routes into MacDill, Mejia said.

Those staying behind the wheel are readying themselves for longer, farther drives. They predict the shorter detours will likely clog in the evenings.

Ana Alvarez is mulling over roundabout routes to her West Shore workplace from Valrico.

"I don't think I have another choice," said Alvarez, 40. "It seems like the longest route would be the perfect one in this case."

A memo at work cautioned employees about two-hour commutes. That's likely to keep Alvarez from spending more time with her 10-year-old daughter, Karla.

"Money is a factor, but the stress!" Alvarez said. "Time is money."

Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.

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