TAMPA — More than 180,000 vehicles travel along a stretch of Interstate 275 between the Howard Frankland Bridge and the Hillsborough River each day.
Add in a $215 million, three-year construction project to widen the roadway and traffic backups increase.
To help things flow more smoothly during this time, the Florida Department of Transportation and the Tampa Bay Area Transportation Authority have teamed up to make carpooling more attractive.
The first 500 commuters who sign up to carpool the 4-mile stretch are eligible to earn a $25 Visa gift card each month. Carpoolers must ride together 12 days a month to qualify.
And there's more. Dubbed Startup275, the campaign will also award $10,000 to fund an idea generated by a carpool team and voted on by the public. The idea can be anything from a new business to a non-profit organization to a community event. Tampa-based Cox Media radio station 97X is giving out the prize.
"The hope is that we get people to participate so there are fewer people traveling that distance in vehicles by themselves," said Alex English, communications manager for TBARTA. "It's kind of a mess right now so that's part of the point."
Yet, despite the incentives, the program is off to a slow start, said Kris Carson, a state DOT spokeswoman. Launched in May, fewer than 10 people have signed up thus far, she said.
However, with the campaign slated to run through the end of the year, there is still time to turn it around. Carson pointed to a similar program in Miami as proof.
South Florida Commuter Services, through the DOT, launched its incentive-based carpool program in March 2012. Spurred by a long-term construction project at the interchange of busy State Roads 826 and 836, the program has more than 800 carpoolers each month.
"There are tens of thousands of vehicles that use that interchange each day," said project director Jim Udvardy. "The program has been very successful."
Carpoolers there earn between $25 and $75 each month depending on the number of people in the vehicle. The program should continue through the end of construction, which is projected to last two more years, Udvardy said.
Part of its success, Udvardy said, has been gained through targeting employers along the construction zone to help spread the word. Carpoolers also must prove that driving through the zone is necessary in order to earn their incentive.
The idea of using carpooling to reduce traffic is not new in Tampa, English said, but the area has not had a lot of success in implementing it. There are currently about 2,000 to 3,000 active registered carpoolers in TBARTA's system.
"It's probably not as robust as we would like," he said. "Traffic just hasn't really gotten bad enough in a lot of places for people to want to do it, and gas hasn't gotten too expensive."
As construction continues on I-275, the DOT hopes that frustrated commuters will turn to carpooling as an effective alternative.
Expected to last through fall 2016, the construction project will widen the road to four through-lanes in each direction and provide a flatter roadway, improved interchanges and a wider median for future improvements.
Once completed, the project should improve sight distance and decrease the chances of accidents, according to the DOT.
To participate in the Startup275 campaign, carpoolers must drive through the construction zone during their commute with two or more people in a vehicle and log their miles online at the campaign's website, which uses software already in use by TBARTA to help connect potential carpool mates.
"The software makes it easy to register online and get a list of people that they can carpool with," English said. "You can find people who live, work or both near you to carpool with."
Ideas for the $10,000 prize can be submitted starting Sept. 15. Then teams have four months to develop the concept, submit photos and videos and garner votes.
In the end, the team with the most votes wins. And hopefully, carpooling is brought into the spotlight, Carson said.
"It will make a little bit of a difference if it can encourage carpooling," Carson said. "And we're hoping that would continue once the contest ends."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.