WESLEY CHAPEL — There’s a new way to get on and off Interstate 75 at State Road 56 in Pasco County. It feels like you’re driving on the wrong side of the road to get there — but you’re not.
Instead, drivers will be traversing the new diverging diamond interchange designed to reduce traffic congestion at the heavily traveled intersection.
The Florida Department of Transportation opened the diamond to limited traffic at 3:27 p.m. Sunday, four years after introducing the concept. The westbound lane of SR 56 opened first, and the eastbound lane followed soon after.
“The real key is you just follow the lane lines and the signs,” spokesperson John McShaffrey said. “They tell you very clearly where to go.”
The biggest surprise is coming off the interstate, McShaffrey said, because drivers heading left will make a gradual curve on the same side of the street they’re already on instead of crossing lanes of traffic.
The debut had been delayed, first by the default of the main contractor, and last month by weather. The state had as many as 70 workers making finishing touches to the roadway right up until Sunday’s opening.
“We’ve had to do a whole lot ... overnight last night to this point,” McShaffrey said. “They had to completely eradicate all the traffic markings that were on the road before.”
The workers also had to re-stripe the roadway, put up traffic signals, remove bags covering signs and install new ones.
The goal was to allow limited traffic onto the interchange at about 1:30 p.m. But it wasn’t until 3:27 p.m. that drivers finally got to try it out.
The opening also meant that travel on SR 56 across the interstate overpass resumed after being closed for the weekend.
The configuration is an early version of what the final product will look like, according to the Department of Transportation.
The road won’t be at full capacity until its expected completion later this summer, state officials said. The contractor has more work to do in order to open up another through-lane on both eastbound and westbound SR 56 and an additional turn lane from the northbound exit ramp onto westbound SR 56.
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The $33.6 million project’s distinguishing characteristic is a unique diverging diamond configuration, which has traffic crossing over to the left side of the road and then back to the right.
The design was chosen “because of the proven ability of this traffic configuration to increase safety and capacity while using a large amount of the existing interchange footprint, including the existing bridge,” according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
“The diverging diamond was also chosen because of its ability to handle heavy left turn volumes, such as the westbound to southbound movement from State Road 56 to Interstate 75,” the state said.
“The expected benefits for the interchange are an increase in capacity and pedestrian safety while reducing vehicle delays and crashes. These benefits will be achieved by an increased number of lanes, improved pedestrian facilities, more efficient signal timings and reduced vehicle conflict points.”
Pasco County officials have been anxious to see the road opened as work fell months behind schedule.
In October 2020, Pasco county commissioners blasted the delays in the much-needed project. Local businesses were concerned that despite predictions of the opening date, they would miss another Christmas shopping season without the project completed.
The interchange runs through fast-growing Wesley Chapel, where snarled traffic is common. The contractor blamed delays on design problems with the road plans.
The problem grew worse in mid-2021 when contractor D.A.B. Constructors defaulted on the interchange project and abandoned several other major road projects in Hillsborough, Pasco and Citrus counties.
D.A.B. closed their doors in July 2021 after more than 30 years in the construction business, and the state, working through bonding companies, had to switch the jobs to new construction firms.