PLANT CITY — Expect that massive traffic jam on eastbound Interstate 4 to grind on at least through today as crews repair a hole in the roadway near the Branch Forbes Road exit.
The depression, caused by soil settling beneath the asphalt, was discovered Tuesday afternoon.
Traffic was funneled to one lane, backing up vehicles for miles during peak hours Wednesday. The entrance ramp from Branch Forbes was closed as crews tried to repair the road.
As workers tackled that problem, there were more headaches: Another depression was spotted near the westbound Alexander Street on-ramp in Plant City, about 15 feet off the highway.
That hole, discovered at about 2 p.m. Wednesday, was 12 feet wide and 10 feet deep, transportation officials said. The on-ramp was closed as a precaution, but the highway's westbound lanes stayed open.
Officials couldn't say exactly when the two ramps will reopen or when eastbound traffic will return to normal. It could be a day or two — or several days.
"We're asking people to be patient. This is an emergency situation," Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marian Scorza said.
The Florida Highway Patrol is urging eastbound motorists to try alternate routes. From Interstate 75 and other eastern points, use Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (State Road 574), Hillsborough Avenue (U.S. 92) and Sam Allen Road through the Thonotosassa area.
"If you can avoid I-4, avoid it," patrol spokesman Larry Kraus said.
Officials had hoped the work would be finished Wednesday and the lanes opened today. But they can't pinpoint when the road will reopen until they know the full extent of the problem.
Crews used ground-penetrating radar to study the depression and drilled holes to retrieve core samples. They pumped concrete beneath the surface to stabilize the roadway. Now they have to wait for the concrete to settle to determine if all the gaps were filled. If that works, workers can repave the roadway, Scorza said.
An average of 47,000 vehicles a day use that stretch of I-4.
Eastbound traffic backed up for several miles Tuesday afternoon, stretching to Interstate 75. Traffic started to back up again shortly after dawn Wednesday at the on-ramp for Branch Forbes Road. It eased later in the morning and early afternoon, but the delays multiplied again as the Wednesday afternoon rush hour approached.
Ted Nelson, who stopped at the Starbucks at the Thonotosassa exit just past Branch Forbes Road, said it took him about 15 minutes to make it through the backup.
"The wait was not as long as I expected, actually," said Nelson, who was in town from Michigan on business.
Trucker Kevin Acevedo said the ordeal has made him nervous about the potential for other road collapses, especially as farmers continue to pump water from the ground to protect their crops. Acevedo took a detour around the Branch Forbes snarl, but he said that didn't put his mind at ease.
He hauls 50,000 to 80,000 pounds of hazardous building materials in his 40-foot trailer five days a week.
"These things don't hold up too good if it's not on solid ground," Acevedo said.
Times correspondent Rich Shopes contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.