TAMPA — Commuters crawling through rush-hour traffic in northern Hillsborough County have another 18 months before a construction bottleneck at Interstate 75 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard is finished.
Replacing the interstate spans over Bruce B. Downs — part of a $95 million project to expand I-75 from Fowler Avenue to State Road 56 — started early this year. Construction timetables call for the project to end by the spring or summer 2014, Florida Department of Transportation spokesman John McShaffrey said.
Southbound drivers may get some relief by the spring, when work on one bridge finishes and traffic goes from the current two lanes to three.
But the two overpasses are more unfinished than finished.
"The bridge building is kind of in its infancy," McShaffrey said.
Workers still have to drive pilings and build the southbound bridge, demolish the old northbound span, then build a new, three-lane northbound bridge.
Meanwhile, drivers heading north will continue to use a temporary bridge over Bruce B. Downs built earlier this year.
The DOT also has to complete improvements to Bruce B. Downs at the I-75 interchange when the bridges are complete. And those bridges have to be high enough to accommodate a mass transit route if one ever reaches that area, McShaffrey said.
Between 75,000 and 100,000 drivers each day travel from Wesley Chapel in Pasco County into northern Hillsborough.
Motorists using the interstate between Fowler Avenue and southern Pasco already have endured almost a year of lane shifts, nearly nightly lane closures and traffic-constricting barriers. They still face three more years along parts of that stretch.
The new interstate spans over Bruce B. Downs are one segment of a larger construction project covering 11 miles from Fowler to State Road 56 that started in October of 2011 and won't be complete until late 2015, McShaffrey said.
"The goal is to have three through lanes in each direction all the way to State Road 56. There will be four to six lanes in places, but some of those will be auxiliary lanes or become exit-only lanes," he said.
The widening project is on schedule and hasn't encountered major delays. Even torrential rain from Tropical Storm Debby caused only a handful of lost workdays.
The four-year project also includes a new bridge on westbound Fowler Avenue over the Hillsborough River, along with widening exit and entrance ramps at Fowler and Fletcher avenues.
Ultimately, the DOT plans to expand I-75 to three lanes in each direction to north of State Road 54 in Pasco.
But the DOT work is only part of the construction that drivers around Bruce B. Downs will have to bear.
As the state labors on the interstate and interchanges, Hillsborough County is working to give thousands of drivers along Bruce B. Downs more fender room in a 3.4-mile segment between Palm Springs Boulevard and Pebble Creek Drive.
The project will expand that portion of Bruce B. Downs from four lanes to eight. Work from I-75 to Pebble Creek is expected to end by December, and from the interstate to Palm Springs Boulevard by April, county spokesman Steve Valdez said.
The portion between Pebble Creek and the interstate is the busiest segment of Bruce B. Downs that carries local and commuter traffic.
"A great deal of the people in the Wesley Chapel area take that road to Tampa. They are slammed there," Valdez said.
The county originally budgeted $72 million for the 3.4 miles but the sagging economy provided a break when bids came in $42 million less.
The county will use the savings to jump-start the next portion of improvements to Bruce B. Downs from Bearss Avenue to Palm Springs Boulevard starting late this year or in early 2013, Valdez said. That project will likely take another three years.
"It is the largest project we've done to date," Valdez said. "The reason is, we literally have to move 64,000 vehicles a day."