Platt Street Bridge work causing big toll-road bills for some Tampa drivers

Cars take a ramp onto the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway off eastbound Plant Street in Tampa on Tuesday. Eastbound traffic on the expressway was up an average of 197,110 cars in October and November compared with the two months before the bridge closed.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Cars take a ramp onto the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway off eastbound Plant Street in Tampa on Tuesday. Eastbound traffic on the expressway was up an average of 197,110 cars in October and November compared with the two months before the bridge closed.

TAMPA — Gridlock and traffic woes aside, not everyone is bemoaning the temporary closing of the Platt Street bridge.

The agency that runs the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway has seen a big jump in the number of vehicles using the South Tampa leg of the toll road headed into downtown.

Eastbound traffic was up an average of 197,110 cars in October and November compared with the two months before the bridge closed. That translates to an estimated $174,141 in additional toll money.

And construction isn't over yet. The bridge is scheduled to reopen Jan. 16, and those figures don't include December.

"I'm surprised it was so much, but I believe the expressway is a very easy way to get into downtown,'' said Sue Chrzan, spokeswoman for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. "We have gotten a lot of people who said, 'I never traveled it before and it's very easy.' ''

Many drivers say they have no choice but take the toll road to get downtown. Otherwise, they end up sitting in traffic on Kennedy Boulevard and other less direct routes.

Richard and Connie Bond, owners of Yeoman's Pub on Davis Islands, said they "reluctantly'' started using the expressway to save time and aggravation. Their first bill: $34.

"I don't want to fight the traffic,'' she said. "I'll burn through that money in gas.''

To add to their frustration, business is down more than 20 percent since bridge construction began.

"Nobody from downtown comes here because they can't get back,'' she said, lamenting the empty bar during happy hour last week. "A lot of people are avoiding the whole area.''

An average 606,867 eastbound vehicles passed the toll gantry near Plant Avenue in October and November compared with 489,979 in August and September. The overhead electronic plaza collects tolls from cars entering at any point in South Tampa west of Plant. Drivers with a SunPass pay $1, and those without one are billed $1.25 by mail.

The Plant Avenue entrance, the fastest route for Davis Islands residents going downtown, also registered a significant boost in traffic. An average 139,450 vehicles entered at Plant in October and November, up from 59,228 for the two previous months. They paid 50 cents to go downtown, or 75 cents if they didn't have a SunPass.

The extra traffic means more money for the expressway authority but isn't a windfall, Chrzan said. Traffic on the east end of the toll road is down due to construction of the Interstate 4 connector.

The drawbridge closed Oct. 3 for repairs and upgrades, forcing the 34,000 drivers who use it every day to find alternate routes. To help avoid a mini Carmageddon, the city tweaked the timing of traffic signals, shifted lanes and assigned police officers to direct traffic at busy spots, such as Plant and Kennedy.

Drivers, for the most part, settled into new patterns quickly, but that came with a price.

Amy Cadicamo, who owns the Buzz coffee shop on Harbour Island with her husband, Paul Guzzo, said they have been using the Selmon Expressway at least three times a day to get to work from their Davis Islands home.

At first, when she didn't hear her SunPass beep, she assumed the tolls were free during the bridge construction. Then, she got a bill for $27. It turns out her transponder battery had died.

"I can't wait for it to be done,'' she said. "I look at our expense report and see SunPass, SunPass, SunPass on the credit card.''

The expressway authority can't suspend tolls except during an emergency evacuation.

Abraham Marcus, who travels from South Tampa to downtown a few times a day for business, dreads getting his bill but admits liking the convenience.

"When you're living in the moment, it's nice,'' he said. "Everyone is stuck in traffic, but you're not.''

Harry Peabody, a driver for Yellow Cab who often works downtown and on Harbour Island, said he avoids the area whenever there's a big event or a hockey game and can't understand why the $13.8 million project is taking this long.

"It's insane,'' he said. "We need to have people working that bridge 24/7.''

Crews are working mostly 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and have a hefty incentive to finish the job on time, said Steve Valdez, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Public Works Department. For every day they finish early, they get an extra $10,000. For every day they finish late, there's a $10,000 penalty.

Richard Bond from Yeoman's Pub is counting down the time and says the bridge better not be closed on Jan. 28.

That's Gasparilla.

Platt Street Bridge work causing big toll-road bills for some Tampa drivers 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 11:26pm]

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