TAMPA — Four years ago today, a 300-foot stretch of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway collapsed in a thunderclap of dust and crumbling concrete.
It was a huge disaster. When a new reversible elevated road between Brandon and Tampa eventually opened after extensive repairs, many nervous motorists swore they'd never drive on it.
"I would walk to MacDill (Air Force Base) before I'd get on that upper level," Valrico resident Jennifer Kodalen said at the time.
Now it turns out that lots of commuters are driving on it after all. In fact, traffic on the upper lanes is heavier than what was projected.
"People like it better than we expected," said Joe Waggoner, executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, which runs the Crosstown. "They like the time savings and the view. We're getting people who try it once, they like it and they decide to stay up there."
Initial projections said the reversible lanes would likely be carrying 12,000-12,500 vehicles per weekday by now. Instead, they're at 16,000-17,000 a day, Waggoner said, despite an economic downturn that has cut traffic on the Crosstown and on toll roads nationwide.
"It's serving a need — the growth in the Brandon area," he said.
Three lanes on the Crosstown's upper deck take commuters from Brandon and the east Hillsborough suburbs to downtown Tampa in the morning, then switch directions and head back to Brandon in the evening.
But even though the reversible road has become business-as-usual for many drivers, officials are still dealing with the legacy of the Crosstown's collapse as they prepare to make some changes.
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The elevated lanes were built because the road below had become a traffic-clogged nightmare. On April 13, 2004, while the roadway was under construction, part of it buckled after a support column sank into a patch of unstable soil. Soon another column sank into the too-soft ground.
This prompted $100-million in fixes and an extra year of work to stabilize the new road. Three-fourths of the support pillars had to be reinforced.
The Expressway Authority fired its director and sued the project's main engineers — a lawsuit that remains unresolved.
There were worries that the toll road would never pay for itself. Today, with nearly 400,000 drivers a month paying $1.50 each way for a faster commute, it's clear that it will.
But because the collapse raised the road's price tag from $350-million to $450-million, the small local Expressway Authority is still dealing with a financial hangover. All of its debts will hurt its ability to take on major new projects until about 2014.
"Right now we're fairly strapped for cash," Waggoner said.
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For example, the toll road agency had considered building an east-west expressway in New Tampa to siphon some of the traffic overloading Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
But that project has stalled because the federal government wants another $500,000 worth of impact studies, and the city of Tampa, the state and Expressway Authority say they can't pay it.
Still, some big changes are coming to the Selmon Crosstown Expressway.
The Crosstown Connector: This mile-long elevated link between the expressway and Interstate 4, through an Ybor City industrial zone, is to be built starting in late 2009 or early 2010 and should open by 2013.
Work on the downtown viaduct: In 2010, plans are to replace the concrete surface of a mile-long elevated section of expressway through downtown. Although it will stay open, lanes will be closed for long periods. It'll be such a pain that consideration is being given to adding two lanes to that part of the highway years earlier than scheduled — partly because the Crosstown Connector will put more traffic on the road.
"We don't want to tear it up once and then do it again five years later," Waggoner said. "The big 'if' is, how much would that cost."
Eliminating toll booths: The Expressway Authority intends to do away with manual toll booths that take coins, instead moving to an all-electronic collection system. Officials are shooting for 2010.
About 70 percent of drivers on the expressway already have a SunPass, and that's expected to rise with the debut of a cheaper SunPass later this year that will cost only $5. The hope is that this trend will get more drivers to move up to the reversible elevated lanes, which are already electronically tolled, said authority spokeswoman Sue Chrzan.
Vehicles with no SunPass are to be billed by cameras photographing their license plates.
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In the aftermath of 2004's collapse, officials scrambled to assure motorists that the elevated road would be safe. When it opened in mid 2006, drivers like Bob Minthorn said, "I'm staying off that thing, partially because I'm suspicious about its construction."
Minthorn, a retired Hillsborough school official in Gibsonton, still stays off the expressway. But not because he fears for his life.
It's only because he doesn't want to pay the toll.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.