TAMPA — Driving on Interstate 275 between Memorial Highway and the Hillsborough River can be bad for business. Just ask car salesman Darren Lane. He avoids the interstate during test drives.
Between the traffic and the anxiety of not knowing what's ahead, "it's just too much for them," said Lane, who works at Jerry Ulm Dodge Chrysler Jeep. "If they want to drive on the interstate, I'll take them to (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) and let them drive back on I-4. If they go up there on their own, they'll get too frustrated."
The state Department of Transportation is planning a fix. It just won't be a quick one.
Next month, the agency will consider contractors' bids to widen southbound I-275 from the Hillsborough River to Memorial Highway as well as the northbound side from Memorial Highway to Himes Avenue.
Drivers will need to endure an estimated four to five years of construction. Work is set to start after the Republican National Convention in late August.
The project can't come soon enough for motorists like Jeremy Perkinson. He lives in New Tampa and commutes to St. Petersburg.
The highway's roller-coaster-like design — up one hill and down the next — is among the most frustrating parts of his trip, which can run from 20 minutes to nearly an hour each way.
"You can't see what's ahead of you," he said. "You come up a hill, there's a blind spot, and then there's just a wall of traffic. You wonder if the cars behind you are going to stop. I've almost been rear-ended a couple of times."
Kiosi Garfias of Town 'N Country can relate. He works in Clearwater, but takes his son to a day care in downtown Tampa.
He avoids the highway as much as possible, which means taking back roads and dealing with traffic lights and stop signs. But even then, he said, that's faster than taking the interstate.
"It's just bumper to bumper. There are too many cars going to and from Clearwater. I'm better off exiting early and taking local roads to the Courtney Campbell (Parkway)," he said.
The DOT said the project, estimated at $255 million, aims to the boost capacity and improve safety, which should allow for a smoother commute.
One lane will be added in each direction, and on- and off-ramps will become longer. Tons of fill dirt will be trucked in to lift the lanes from 5 to 20 feet to smooth out the highway's angst-inducing hills and valleys.
"This will increase your stopping distance and make it easier to see when traffic is backed up, and you'll have less accidents," DOT project manager Allan Urbonas said.
The Florida Highway Patrol logged 2,751 accidents in the area from the Howard Frankland Bridge to I-4 between March 2009 and March of this year. The southbound side was slightly more dangerous, with 73 more crashes than the northbound lanes.
Initially, work on both sides of the highway from Memorial to downtown was expected to begin five years ago. But when contractors' bids came in $120 million over budget, officials decided to focus on the northbound stretch from Himes Avenue to downtown and finish the rest later, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
Four companies are vying for the work and bids will be unsealed April 17. The chosen contractor will decide where exactly to start construction, Carson said. Work is set to start Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day.