TRAFFIC UPDATE: The Florida Highway Patrol is recommending that drivers avoid Interstate 4 westbound in the Plant City area during the Wednesday evening rush hour. The suggested alternate westbound routes from Interstate 75 and other points to the east are Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (State Road 574), Hillsborough Avenue (U.S. 92) and Sam Allen Road through the Thonotosassa area, FHP spokesman Sgt. Larry Kraus said.
PLANT CITY — Three eastbound lanes of Interstate 4 will remain closed until at least Thursday because of a depression in the roadway near the Branch Forbes Road exit, officials said.
The depression caused by soil settling, first feared to be a sinkhole, was discovered Tuesday afternoon. Eastbound traffic is being funneled to one lane, backing up traffic for miles during peak hours.
Meanwhile, another possible sinkhole opened Wednesday at about 2 p.m. along Interstate 4 — this time off the highway beside the westbound lanes.
The hole was about 12 feet wide and 10 feet deep. It opened near the Alexander Street on ramp to westbound I-4.
The on-ramp to I-4 west at Alexander Street was closed as a precaution because it is only about 15 feet from the sinkhole that opened Wednesday afternoon, said Marian Scorza, a Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman. The entrance ramp from Branch Forbes Road to eastbound Interstate 4 is also closed.
The hole should not affect traffic because it's off the roadway, Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Larry Kraus said.
Crews will drill holes and pump concrete beneath the eastbound surface to stabilize the roadway, Scorza said. If that works, they will then repave the roadway with asphalt.
Officials had hoped the work would be completed Wednesday and the lanes opened Thursday.
Eastbound traffic at the on-ramp for Branch Forbes Road began to back up shortly after dawn Wednesday. Traffic backed up for several miles Tuesday afternoon, stretching to Interstate 75.
At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, traffic was backed up at least 2 miles. It eased later in the morning and early afternoon, but expect long delays during the Wednesday afternoon rush hour.
One right eastbound lane remains open for slow-moving traffic. The Florida Highway Patrol encouraged drivers to avoid the area.
An average of 47,000 vehicles a day use that stretch of I-4, Scorza said.
Troopers said good alternatives are U.S. Highway 92, also called Sam Allen Road, which takes drivers to State Road 39 and then back to I-4; or Thonotosassa Road, where drivers can re-enter the interstate. Those routes were moving smoothly Wednesday morning.
Kraus said drivers either need to plan a different route or plan to be stuck for awhile.
"If they can avoid the area that would be great," he said. "If they cannot, just be patient."
Commuter 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 traffic backup.
Nelson is in town from Michigan on business, and he said he heard about the road closure at a meeting Tuesday afternoon and planned to leave early.
"The wait was not as long as I expected, actually," Nelson said as he got back into his car.
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 keep plants warm. 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 a solid ground," Acevedo said.