TAMPA — Afternoon rush-hour is about to get more hectic for thousands of motorists heading home to Clearwater as the Department of Transportation prepares to move an exit ramp from one side of northbound Memorial Highway to the other.
The shift, set for 5:30 a.m. Wednesday if weather permits, means drivers heading northbound on Memorial will need to move to the right lanes to take the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
The triple-lane left exit drivers currently use will be shut for a few months so workers can rebuild lanes leading to the exit.
When finished, motorists will have both a right and a left exit to the Courtney Campbell from northbound Memorial.
The changes are part of the $214 million reconstruction of roads near Tampa International Airport. The project is expected to be finished by the end of the year, four months ahead of schedule.
"For a while it seemed we'd take a couple of steps forward and then a step backward with having to build temporary lanes, but now all the steps are forward," DOT spokesman John McShaffrey said.
Also on Wednesday, traffic on northbound Memorial will be shifted to what now is part of the highway's southbound lanes. The four-lane road will have new lighting and fewer curves and bumps.
Officials anticipate the exit-ramp switch will not go as smoothly, despite a campaign of public announcements and electronic signs announcing the changes starting Monday.
"There will be some people, we're sure, that will miss that exit and try to make some sudden lane changes," McShaffrey said.
The resulting crisscrossing is almost certain to stir up confusion and trigger delays, especially during afternoon rush-hour as thousands of Clearwater-bound drivers try to decide within seconds which lane to use.
If they miss the exit, they'll get only one chance to turn around, at Independence Parkway a half-mile up the road, before ending up on the Veterans Expressway and being forced to pay a toll. It's 25 cents to exit at the Hillsborough Avenue toll plaza.
"We'll try to do the best we can with signs, but we know some folks will miss the signs and be distracted," McShaffrey said.
A similar lane shift sparked massive traffic headaches last fall on southbound Memorial Highway. Drivers trying to get to Tampa International Airport and the West Shore business district discovered the exit ramp had been switched to the highway's left side so workers could build a new ramp to the airport.
Some confused drivers pulled over. Others found themselves trapped on the triangular no-man's land between the exit and the highway. The gridlock turned a 30-minute commute for some into a hours-long slog.
McShaffrey isn't expecting that same level of confusion this time around, but he anticipates some delays. About 24,500 drivers take the Courtney Campbell exit from northbound Memorial each day.
"The signs will be coming out there on Monday. They'll be like a count-down clock, announcing a traffic switch is coming in X-number of days, so people are prepared," he said. "I think most of them will get it."