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MacDill plans to upgrade entrances

In the interest of national security, Carl Smith has put up with more than most.

He and his family live on the south end of Manhattan Avenue, across the street from one of MacDill Air Force Base's four entrances. As luck would have it, since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Port Tampa gate has handled security inspections for the base's commercial truck traffic.

So, on many mornings, trucks line up before dawn.

Engines idle. Trailers block driveways. Diesel fumes waft over porches.

"I'm wondering if the diesel is going to kill my plants," Smith said, pointing to a line of potted flowers.

He won't have to worry much longer.

As part of a $7-million project to renovate all of MacDill's entrances, the base is moving the Port Tampa gate a couple hundred yards east.

MacDill officials planned the changes without talking to Port Tampa neighbors _ a decision that irks some of them. But when Smith found out, he pressed his palms together and looked skyward.

"Yeaaa!" he said.

Most of the improvements will involve the Port Tampa gate and the main gate at the south end of Dale Mabry Highway.

The goal: Beef up security and grease traffic flow.

Guards will "be able to do more efficient inspections and we'll be able to clear traffic faster," said Bob Fisher, a civilian who manages MacDill's construction projects.

J. Kokolakis Construction of Tarpon Springs is expected to begin work in March and finish in a year, Fisher said. MacDill did not know specific work schedules for each gate, and Kokolakis officials did not return a call for comment.

The work was expected to begin last fall but was delayed because of a bidding dispute. One of six companies that failed to win the contract challenged the bidding process, but a court ruled in MacDill's favor, Fisher said. MacDill officials would not name the disgruntled company.

Base visitors will notice the changes during and after construction.

Near the Dale Mabry entrance, the tiny visitors' center will be torn down and replaced with a bigger one, a half block closer to the base.

Contractors will build a traffic circle at Dale Mabry and Marcum Street and double the number of security-check lanes heading into the base to four.

At times during construction, one incoming traffic lane will be closed. At least 5,000 vehicles a day use the Dale Mabry entrance.

The changes in Port Tampa will be even more dramatic.

The gate was built when the base opened in the 1940s but primarily has been used for special events, such as air shows, said MacDill spokesman Master Sgt. Chris Miller. After the terrorist attacks, federal officials mandated a separate entrance for commercial vehicles, so the Port Tampa gate came to life with portable concrete barriers and a small guard shack.

The gate's sudden usefulness has had some downsides.

A dozen houses line that stretch of Manhattan. And about 60 families live in the Bay Mobile Home Park, at the corner of Manhattan and Interbay Boulevard.

For the past two years, some 250 to 300 trucks a day have been using the Port Tampa gate, at times forming lines that stretch to Interbay.

Some truckers arrive before the gate opens at 5 a.m.

"I'm like, argh," said resident Jami Cannon. "I just put the pillow over my head."

The new gate will be just east of the mobile home park, with the entrance road shooting 550 feet south of Interbay Boulevard along an abandoned railroad corridor.

A waiting area will accommodate up to 16 trucks.

Mobile home park residents don't seem to mind the change.

"Anything for Uncle Sam," said Buddy Young, who lives in a motor home 30 feet from the future entrance road.

The road will be buffered by a noise-muffling berm about 6 feet high, Fisher said.

Despite a generally positive reaction, a whiff of resentment lingers about MacDill's plans.

MacDill should have done the neighborly thing and communicated its plans to the public early on, if not sought input, said Scott Davis, president of the Port Tampa Civic Association.

After learning of residents' concerns, base officials decided to present the plans at Tuesday's civic association meeting.

Better late than never, Davis said.

_ Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matussptimes.com.

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