TAMPA — From the air, it looks like a pile of noodles. Ramps twisting and splitting, flyover lanes soaring, highways going this way and that.
But the dizzying network around Tampa International Airport is finally becoming a manageable interchange, the product of a $215 million project wrapping up after four years of planning and construction.
"Before, it was a mess. You couldn't even move," said cab driver Emmanuel Anbroise, 47, waiting on passengers outside Tampa International. "It's very much better than it was."
It started in August 2005, perhaps the biggest project in the Tampa Bay area since the new Sunshine Skyway. It would link Interstate 275 to the south with the Veterans Expressway to the north and the Courtney Campbell Parkway to the west.
Officials promised motorists would be able to navigate the massive interchange with no more than two lane switches.
Department of Transportation records show that more than 160,000 cars typically travel the airport interchange every day. It was imperative that the roads remained accessible, especially around the busy West Shore business district, said DOT spokesman John McShaffrey.
With the airport smack in the middle of the whole thing, the DOT had to be aware of flight times. And no bright lights could be allowed near the runway, creating a hazard for pilots .
For months, the rebuilding caused confusing changes — detours, lane closures and exits switching from one side of the highway to another.
"That was probably the toughest thing to deal with," McShaffrey said of the exit changes. "But the alternate is shutting down roads for days, months or even years."
That ended on Tuesday.
One more lane out of the airport will open before Christmas, and several final touches such as painting, resurfacing and landscaping will be completed in the next few months.
"We don't get stuck in traffic like we used to," said cab driver Claudy St. Louis, 36, waiting on passengers outside TIA.
Across the interchange, off State Road 60 west toward Clearwater, Donna Vallin parked her car at the Waterford Plaza on Rocky Point Drive, where she works.
Vallin smiled as she walked from the parking garage, noting that the commute from her Westchase home was nearly cut in half by the new traffic patterns.
"It was much needed," she said. "It keeps everyone separate. It was all that crossing over that was dangerous."
Down the road, catering manager Steve Gurgold was outside the Rusty Pelican restaurant, getting ready for the day's customers. He drives from Sarasota every day, taking I-275 over the Howard Frankland Bridge, and he likes having a more direct route into town.
"You don't have to worry about people veering into your lane. That was really hellacious for a while," Gurgold said.
He's not the only one who felt that way. Any time the restaurant hosted events for people unfamiliar with the area, he overheard the same complaint: The route to get here sure was a mess.
"Hopefully, this will alleviate all of that," he said.
Of course, with so many out-of-town travelers from the airport navigating the area, confusion will always be an issue, McShaffrey said.
He cautioned against relying on GPS systems, which may not be updated with new roads. Just pay attention to where you're going, watch the signs, and the new setup should make a big difference, he said.
The end of this project, however, will not bring a reprieve from road construction.
The DOT has its sights on other improvements around the new interchange, including rebuilding I-275; improving the interchange at SR 60 and I-275; and lengthening the SR 60 exit from the Howard Frankland.
Those plans have not been funded, but DOT is prepared to break ground whenever possible.
"All of the interstate system is a puzzle,'' McShaffrey said, "and we're building pieces of it all the time."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3386.