Thursday, February 22, 2018
Transportation

Officials preaching patience for workers commuting to downtown Tampa

TAMPA — David Douglas, who lives near Channelside and works downtown, might have the right idea during the Republican National Convention: leave the car at home and walk to work.

Another smart move might be to show up early and leave early.

City officials, anticipating as many as 50,000 delegates, journalists, protesters and other visitors to downtown, are telling drivers to allow for delays and look out for jaywalkers, blocked streets and police directing traffic.

"It's going to be interesting, seeing the swarms of people and police in riot gear, so it will be exciting but nonetheless a pain in the butt for driving," said Douglas, 35, a financial planner who moved to Tampa two years ago from New Jersey.

Like other downtown workers, Douglas is taking the precautions to heart. He's considering an offer by his boss to take vacation days, but will play it by ear. Now, with Tropical Storm Isaac poised to churn past the Tampa Bay area, Douglas has more than traffic to worry about.

Forecasters on Saturday were still uncertain about the storm's exact track, but expected it to strengthen to a hurricane and brush the Tampa Bay area on Monday.

Some delegate bus routes to downtown might be altered, depending on wind gusts and rain, but officials would make that call once the storm's impact is better known.

"All of that will be determined on an hour-by-hour basis," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Saturday. "We're not expecting tidal issues except perhaps in areas already prone to flooding, but we don't expect a tidal surge in the downtown Tampa area."

As the storm lurked, officials were putting the final touches on RNC preparations. Road closures started taking effect Friday night, with crews placing water-filled Jersey barriers, orange barrels and traffic cones at intersections, and metal fencing along Brorein Street to keep pedestrians away from the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The makeover took 17 hours. All those changes will remain in place unless weather conditions significantly deteriorate, city transportation manager Jean Duncan said.

Commuters traveling downtown will encounter essentially a divided city: Downtown's southern half from the Times Forum and Channel District to the south side of Jackson Street is where convention attendees will gather. Commuters, protesters, business owners and residents will have access to blocks north of Jackson, except on parts of Franklin, Madison and Pierce streets.

Also, numerous detours are in place, including:

• Bayshore Boulevard at Swann Avenue. Drivers heading downtown will need to take S Boulevard to the Cass Street bridge.

• The Lee Roy Selmon Expressway's local lanes will close at 50th Street and Willow Avenue from 12:30 a.m. Monday to 5 a.m. Friday. The expressway's elevated, reversible lanes will stay open. From Willow, drivers will be directed to Cleveland Street, Howard Avenue and Interstate 275.

• Motorists exiting the Selmon Expressway at 50th Street (U.S. 41) can take State Road 60 to downtown.

• Meridian Avenue is closed, except to local traffic south of Kennedy Boulevard.

Look for temporary signs, electronic message boards and police at key downtown intersections. In some places, engineers will hold traffic signals green to keep traffic flowing, Duncan said.

One potential trouble spot is Tampa and Whiting streets. The streets, designated as dropoff spots for delegates and convention visitors, double as commuter routes to the Fort Brooke and Whiting Street garages. Because the garages lie within the event zone, vehicles entering will be subject to searches, which could trigger backups.

"We do anticipate some slowdowns dealing with the garages," police Chief Jane Castor said Saturday.

Some downtown commuters are already adjusting. Last week, 1,500 Hillsborough County workers relocated to offices outside downtown or opted to telecommute. Other downtown workers have decided to pull early-morning shifts to avoid the afternoon rush. Most RNC events are timed for late afternoon or evening.

"The majority of businesses I've talked to, maybe 50 to 60 percent, are planning to come in early and leave by midafternoon," said Christine M. Burdick, president of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. "And they're trying to minimize the amount of appointments they have where people have to travel downtown."

But not everyone can come in at 6 a.m. and leave at 2 p.m. Valerie Wood, 26, of South Tampa said she's pulling her usual 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift at a business solutions company at 505 E Jackson St. because she can't make sales calls at 6 a.m.

"Working from home will probably be my only other option," she said.

Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.

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