TAMPA — Like a clogged artery, the Tampa Bay area's most traffic-choked highway gets so jammed at rush hour that the slightest problem can trigger instant gridlock.
Highway officials learned that the hard way a few months ago when a minor tweak to their construction project on Interstate 275 in Tampa led to hourlong delays that enraged commuters.
With that painful lesson in mind, they're now changing plans for what comes next. They recently reversed course and decided not to close down the main exit to downtown Tampa for two months.
"We've been discussing how we can minimize the impact to the public," said Don Skelton, regional secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation.
Some inconvenience will be inevitable. While I-275 drivers can see a lot of construction alongside the road, many don't realize the state has embarked on a decadelong effort to significantly widen the highway corridor from the Howard Frankland Bridge to the Hillsborough River, beginning to retool the interstate for the rest of this century.
It's a massive undertaking costing $480-million. And even after all that, drivers will get only one additional lane in each direction. More lanes won't come until even further in the future.
"People say, 'Why don't you just build it all at once and do it right?' " said Adam Perez, interstate program manager for the local DOT district. "We wish we could, but there just isn't enough money to do that."
Like the new I-4
When they finish sometime around 2018, as today's second-graders are getting their high school diplomas, this stretch of I-275 will look almost exactly like the newly reconstructed Interstate 4 through Tampa.
It will be a modern eight-lane highway with noise walls along the sides, brick-facade overpasses at major cross streets and a grassy median so wide you could practically hold a soccer tournament in it.
That median will be where the northbound lanes are today, and it may as well have a big sign on it: This space reserved for future transportation use.
The plan is to one day add express lanes to the middle of the highway so long-distance drivers can shoot through Tampa separate from local traffic, skipping exits to local streets like Lois or Armenia avenues.
And there will be enough room to add something else: "It could be HOV lanes, it could be rail, whatever the need might be," Perez said. "It's going to be a long time."
That won't happen in the next decade. What will happen is this:
For starters, contractors will be building new northbound lanes from Himes Avenue to downtown through the end of next year. They're closing entrance and exit ramps as bridges are built over cross streets, but are limiting that to nights and weekends when possible.
Officials had planned to shut down the Ashley Drive exit for 70 days in the near future, detouring downtown traffic to Scott Street as they widen the highway's bridge over the Hillsborough River. But now they worry that would be too disruptive. Instead, they're working on a plan to limit the Ashley closures to nights only.
"They'll be sporadic — 40 to 60 nights of closures over the next seven months," said DOT spokesman John McShaffrey.
Once northbound I-275 traffic moves to the new pavement, the old northbound lanes will sit vacant until they're needed to temporarily carry southbound traffic a few years later.
Hard part comes later
Next year, the DOT will reconfigure the three-way split where the northbound Howard Frankland hits Tampa.
Right now, two left lanes continue on I-275, a middle lane leads to Tampa International Airport and the Veterans Expressway, and the right lane leads to the Kennedy/Westshore area. This causes confusion and last-minute lane changes, especially by visitors to the area.
Instead, the DOT will split the highway earlier on the bridge, dividing it between drivers staying on I-275 and those veering off to the airport or to Kennedy.
"Your decision point will come earlier. It takes some of the confusion out of this," Perez said. "You get a lot of accidents there because people aren't sure what lane they need to be in. This gives them more time to figure that out."
Skyrocketing construction costs forced the state to split the widening of I-275 into three phases. In 2011, the really hard part begins — a four-year rebuilding of the north- and southbound lanes from the bridge to Himes.
"Because it's right on top of existing lanes, that will take more time. It'll be more complicated to maintain traffic," Perez said. Road engineers compare it to performing open heart surgery while the patient goes through a busy work week.
After that, they will redo the southbound highway between downtown and Himes.
"It's scary to look at years and years of construction, but we're going to maintain the same number of through lanes that are there now," McShaffrey said. "This is similar to how we rebuilt I-4. There are going to be some jogs in traffic, a lot of lane shifts."
The state has wanted to widen I-275 in Tampa for 20 years. With the region's rapid growth, the highway carries more cars than it was designed to handle.
"We used to have peak times on the interstate, but now most of the day is peak," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "We appreciate the construction, but it'll be bumper-to-bumper when it's done."
"She's right," DOT official Bob Clifford said of the decadelong project. "The day we open, it'll be full again."
By then, the construction crews will have moved on to Interstate 75.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.