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After South Tampa traffic jams, officials say the city needs a better bullhorn

One fix for preventing unexpected traffic snarls like Wednesday’s across South Tampa: More staff to alert the public about road closures.
Workers are seen at West Platt Street and South Dakota Avenue along the railroad tracks in Tampa Thursday. This week, CSX Transportation has been working on railroad crossings in South Tampa, frustrating local drivers. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
Workers are seen at West Platt Street and South Dakota Avenue along the railroad tracks in Tampa Thursday. This week, CSX Transportation has been working on railroad crossings in South Tampa, frustrating local drivers. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

TAMPA — A day after more than a dozen roads were shut down on the South Tampa peninsula, a top city official told City Council the city needs to improve communication with CSX, the railroad company whose maintenance work surprised drivers and caused long delays.

That message, from Infrastructure and Mobility administrator Jean Duncan to council members Thursday, was different from Wednesday’s response from city officials. Then, they blamed CSX for not following city permitting procedures after a day-long uproar from residents whose commutes stretched from minutes to hours.

City officials initially said they only learned of the closures at railroad crossings a week before. But emails from CSX to the city from late January and early February that surfaced gave a different timeline.

Although Duncan and Transportation Director Vik Bhide said emails and phone calls had been exchanged between the city and CSX, the public remained almost completely unaware of the closures until traffic started to melt down Wednesday.

“See something, say something,” council member John Dingfelder said of city employees who had received the emails.

“It’s better to say something,” he said. “But in this case, nobody did and we ended up with quite the mess.”

“I’m committing that we’re going to do better,” Duncan said.

After her briefing to council, Duncan said the city’s position on how the breakdown occurred evolved as they gathered more information. She and Bhide have asked planning and development officials in charge of permitting to provide a report.

“Give us your summary about how this process played out so we can see, modify, enhance it or whatever we need to do so this doesn’t ever happen again,” Duncan said.

Duncan and Bhide enthusiastically embraced council member Bill Carlson’s motion to ask Mayor Jane Castor to hire staff to communicate public works issues to Tampa residents. The city recently embarked on a $2.9 billion infrastructure plan to repair its aging water and wastewater pipes, work that can disrupt traffic.

That motion passed unanimously.

A public information officer for transportation issues is already planned, said Castor spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. A second communications official has been transferred to a newly-created sustainability and resiliency office.

The city is already communicating well with the public, Bauman said.

“We actively communicate with all departments to ensure our message reaches our residents,” Bauman wrote in a text to the Tampa Bay Times.

Council member Orlando Gudes disagreed, saying he often learns about major mishaps — like a recent downtown fire — from the newspaper.

“I’ve said this from day one on council: We have a communication problem from the city," Gudes said.

Council member Joseph Citro and Chairman Luis Viera said much of the blame lies with CSX, which, they said, had more responsibility for Wednesday’s mess.

“This could have been very easily handled if CSX had given better notice,” Citro said.

CSX issued a statement Thursday.

“CSX apologizes for any impacts the closures may have caused to Tampa residents Wednesday. We are investigating this further to determine where improvements in the process can be made,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, city officials stressed that many intersections have already reopened and more will do so soon.

A worker along West Platt Street and South Dakota Avenue Thursday in Tampa. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Here’s a list of each affected intersection from the city (For real-time road closures throughout the city, go to tampagov.net/roadclosures):

The following streets are reopened.

  • W Euclid Avenue between S Gunlock Avenue and S Lynwood Avenue
  • W El Prado Boulevard between S Concordia Avenue and W Drexel Avenue
  • W Bay to Bay Boulevard between S MacDill Avenue and S Ysabella Avenue
  • N 20th Street between E 7th Avenue and E 5th Avenue
  • W Iowa Avenue S Manhattan Avenue and S Coolidge Avenue
  • W Oklahoma Avenue between S Manhattan Avenue and S Lois Avenue
  • W Prescott Street between S West Shore Boulevard and Fitzgerald Street
  • W McCoy Street between S West Shore Boulevard and S Trask Street

The following streets are expected to reopen by midnight Thursday.

  • W Swann Avenue between S Fremont Avenue and W Packwood Avenue
  • W Cleveland Street from S Willow Avenue to S Dakota Avenue
  • W Platt Street from S Dakota Avenue to S Willow Avenue
  • N 18th Street between E 7th Avenue and E 5th Avenue
  • N Nebraska Avenue between E Cass Street and E Twiggs
  • N 19th Street between E 7th Avenue and E 5th Avenue
  • N 26th Street between E 7th Avenue and E 5th Avenue

The following streets are expected to reopen by 4 p.m. Friday.

  • W Pearl Avenue between S Lois Avenue and S Clark Avenue
  • W Mississippi Avenue between S Georgia Avenue and S Carolina Avenue
  • W Watrous Avenue between S Moody Avenue and S Howard Avenue
  • W Morrison Avenue between S Howard Avenue and S Albany Avenue
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