TAMPA — Officials had braced for backups and lengthy traffic delays on the Republican National Convention's first full day.
The backups happened. The delays happened. But by the time Tuesday's afternoon rush hour was over, commuters, police and city officials could breathe a collective sigh of relief. At times it was bad, and certain pockets of congestion emerged, but it could have been a whole lot worse. For the most part, traffic was moving.
"I've said from day one, traffic is like water. It always finds its way, given a day or so," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.
The delays centered around rush hour. In the morning, drivers found a string of taillights when they turned off E Kennedy Boulevard onto Tampa Street. They inched forward, stopped, and crept forward again as security officers a couple blocks away on Franklin Street searched vehicles entering Fort Brooke's south garage.
Cheryl Pereira, a legal assistant who works downtown, got a taste of the gridlock. Her usual 10- to 15-minute morning commute from Ybor City turned into an hour-long slog, with most of it spent inching along the last few blocks near the Fort Brooke garage.
As she approached the garage, an officer flagged her down. She was in the wrong lane for the garage's south entrance and had to circle back around.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm trying to get over.' They wouldn't let me. They said you had to go around the block," she said. "It was over an hour to park."
Next up, Kennedy Boulevard at opposite ends of downtown: Meridian Avenue — where morning commuters faced a bumper-to-bumper grind coming off the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway's reversible lanes — and Ashley Drive, where afternoon traffic backed up from Jackson Street.
By late afternoon, the problems had shifted to the 12 blocks of Jackson between Ashley and Meridian as commuters sought to head home on the Selmon Expressway and Adamo Drive. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, police closed E Kennedy Boulevard and Jackson Street for about 10 minutes to allow a group to march south on Morgan Street.
Buckhorn said traffic flowed smoothly overall. The RNC has 400 buses transporting delegates from hotels to the event zone south of Jackson Street and the Tampa Bay Times Forum. No major traffic problems occurred as the delegates' buses rolled into downtown Tuesday.
Buses taking students to Gorrie Elementary, Wilson Middle and Plant High schools arrived on time Tuesday, says the Hillsborough school district. But parents at all three South Tampa schools were warned to expect afternoon delays.
To speed things along, officials are encouraging drivers to use the Selmon Expressway's elevated, reversible lanes.
Traffic was sparse Tuesday morning on the lanes, which are inbound starting at 6 a.m. From there, drivers who want to avoid traffic on Kennedy should turn right on Twiggs Street, right on Florida Avenue, left onto Cass Street and then cross the Hillsborough River to N Boulevard. The lanes become outbound at 1:30 p.m.
Anyone struggling to get downtown can contact the 24-hour RNC Call Center, which will provide information on street closures, downtown parking, basic directions and hospitality information for visitors. That toll-free number is 866-762-8687.
Staff Writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.