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Tropical storm left parts of interstate in the dark

I hope none of you assumed, because Jessie and I were gone for a few weeks, that all of southern Pinellas County's traffic problems have been resolved. That would be so wrong. We came back to find old familiar problems that haven't improved and a few problems that actually have grown worse.

Case in point No. 1: For two full months, the lights along northbound and southbound I-275 between downtown St. Petersburg and Gandy Boulevard have been a sometime thing. We failed to notice back in September when the problem began because we didn't have reason to drive the interstate after dark.

But with the advent of autumn and the end of Daylight Saving Time, we began to notice that it was way, way too dark out there. Long stretches of highway had no illumination. We asked the state roadies about it and got a surprising explanation.

Remember Tropical Storm Gabrielle, the near-hurricane that whipped through here in mid-September? It put down huge quantities of water that leaked into the interstate lighting system and shorted out parts of it.

"There was a lot of old wiring in there, and more moisture than it could take," said Marian Pscion, the roadie spokeswoman. "We've had three crews working six days a week to repair it."

Although Marian said she didn't know how long the job would take, it seems to us that the situation is improving. There is still a stretch of non-working lights beside the northbound lanes south of 22nd Avenue N, and another stretch of non-working lights along the southbound lanes south of Gandy. We also noticed sporadic outages here and there, which might be part of the larger problem or nothing more than burned-out bulbs.

In any event, use extra caution. It couldn't hurt.

Cases in point Nos. 2 and 3: We have whined loudly here before about the state of U.S. 19 through Pinellas Park, particularly between 102nd Avenue and Gandy Boulevard, both northbound and southbound. To call it a washboard would be the understatement of the month. The state roadies go out and patch every so often, but the effort is akin to using a wine cork to stopper an active volcano.

Now we must add to our list of complaints those sections of Frontage Road that bracket U.S. 19 between Roosevelt Boulevard and Whitney Road.

Driving over these abysmal streets recently, we were reminded of the old exercise torture machine where the user looped a broad strap around his, um, backside. When turned on, the machine vibrated like crazy, turning its captive into the human equivalent of a bowl of nervous Jell-O.

Not a pretty memory, is it?

On the other hand, if you long for the experience, head for Frontage Road and shake up your life.

Case in Point No. 4: The above case in point would qualify hands down as our Eyeball Jiggler of the Week if not for the railroad crossing at Seventh Avenue S and 31st Street near Gibbs High School.

Zowie. It has been bad for a long, long time, but it seems to have grown worse of late. And, boy, did we ever hear about it. Debra Wadkins, Sue Klein and Mary Jane Herlik, all of St. Petersburg, were jostled badly enough in recent weeks to complain to Jessie about this set of tracks.

CSX has had crews in the area, repairing chewed-up rail crossings here and there around St. Petersburg. But some of the worst aren't on this year's to-be-fixed list, or next year's, either. Unfortunately, that includes the crossing near Gibbs.

Earlier this year, St. Petersburg traffic officials said the crossing at Seventh Avenue S and 31st Street was one of their top candidates for repair. But it is CSX's call, and they said no, not yet.

On the other hand, the terrible crossing on 62nd Avenue just west of 49th Street in Pinellas Park was on the list to be repaired this year, and the project remains under study and as maddening as ever for motorists. Now, we are told, it is on the list to be done next year.

Do we believe this?

Not until we see it, friends.

If you plan on traveling the Howard Frankland Bridge this week, watch out for the closure of the extreme right lane westbound at the hump. The state roadies are checking out support columns in case any of them have the same deterioration problem discovered earlier this year on the Sunshine Skyway.

The Skyway, we were aghast to learn, had five support columns that had not been fully grouted at the base. Over the years, water seeped in and corroded a number of the steel tendons contained within the columns. Two of the five had damage and were filled with reinforced concrete to stabilize them. Three checked out okay.

In all, seven bridges in the Tampa Bay area have similar construction, so the roadies checked them all: Martin Luther King Boulevard over I-75 in Tampa, the Gandy Bridge, U.S. 19 over Alternate 19 and over SR 580, the Fourth Street exit off westbound I-275, the Skyway and the Frankland.

The Frankland is the last to be checked. No problems have been uncovered.

We hope this information puts your mind at ease. We know we will sleep better at night.

The federal roadies tell us that motorcycle deaths rose 15.3 percent, from 2,483 in 1999 to 2,862 last year. It was the third straight year in which motorcycle fatalities rose after 17 years of steady declines. We hope that this state's repeal of mandatory helmet use for adults won't contribute to the death toll for 2001. But we know better.

_ Dr. Delay can be reached by e-mail at docdelaysptimes.com, by fax at (727) 893-8675 or by snail mail at 490 First Ave., S, St. Petersburg 33701.

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