Nightmare on detour street sends cars the wrong way over Tampa Bay

Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp was caught in the mess. Now, the state is smoothing the path to I-275.
Traffic heads west along Interstate 275 (at right) toward the Howard Frankland Bridge in Tampa.
Traffic heads west along Interstate 275 (at right) toward the Howard Frankland Bridge in Tampa. [ TIMES (2017) | Elliott, Loren ]
Published Oct. 3, 2019|Updated Oct. 3, 2019

TAMPA — Anyone who drives the Howard Frankland Bridge knows there’s no turning back once you’re committed.

So imagine the horror when a stream of motorists, blocked by highway construction from taking any other route, found themselves heading west across Tampa Bay rather than home to Tampa as they left Tampa International Airport on Monday night.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp was one of them.

Newsart graphic:
Newsart graphic: [ Times ]

“I just thought it must have been major accident. We ended up having to go across the whole bridge,'' Kemp said. She wondered, ”Did we miss something?''

Once the wayward caravan reached the other side, Kemp said, car after car looked for the first opportunity to turn around.

It should never have happened, state transportation officials say. Metal and portable electric signs directed Tampa-bound motorists to detour at Spruce Street, but a number of people missed them and once they passed Spruce their only exit option was Interstate 275 toward St. Petersburg.

The temporary detours will be required again later, but the Department of Transportation is taking no chances.

Traffic heading that direction will have only one option — the Spruce Street exit. They’ll be detoured from there to Lois Avenue or Dale Mabry Highway where they can choose which way to go on I-275, said John McShaffrey, a department spokesman.

The detours are required as construction crews do demolition work to prepare for widening of the northbound bridge on I-275 over State Road 60, McShaffrey said. The work will take place from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Kemp said she flew into Tampa International Airport on Monday night and grabbed a waiting Uber or Lyft — she doesn’t remember which — for the ride home to Seminole Heights.

Neither she nor her driver saw any signs directing traffic away from the normal airport exit toward the Spruce Street exit, she said.

Soon, they came to a jumble of barrels and lights that prevented them from getting to the I-275 north ramp near Kennedy Boulevard. They followed everyone else on a trip across the bay.

Kemp brought the matter up at a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting Tuesday, prompting Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco to mention that a friend called him Monday night with the same complaint.

“My first thought was, ‘What if it’s someone who is almost out of gas?’‘’ Maniscalco said.