Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gentlemen, start your (reconstruction) engines!

Just when you thought all is said and done on Interstate 4, another interstate reconstruction project is just about to get underway.

Did I say another interstate reconstruction project? Yes! Those projects where we have to dodge the construction barrels and barricades, endure heavier than normal traffic and reduced speed limits, not to mention the temporary roadways that will be in place as the project progresses.

Only this time, it's on Interstate 275 in Tampa from SR 60 (Exit 39) to the Hillsborough River just west of Ashley/Tampa/Scott Streets (Exit 44). However, the project is being done in three stages with the first stage from Himes Avenue eastward to the Hillsborough River (according to the folks at the Florida DOT at their Tampa Bay Interstates site, Interstate 275 from Exit 39 to the Hillsborough River was supposed to be done as one big project but the bids came in too high; instead, the FDOT decided to break up this project into three segments for cost reasons). So, here's the scoop on what will take place over the next few years from what I understand so far:

1. Construct the new northbound lanes using newly acquired right of way.

2. Once the new northbound lanes are open, direct traffic onto the new northbound lanes. At the same time, convert the existing northbound lanes into temporary southbound lanes.

3. Demolish the existing southbound lanes and construct new southbound lanes.

4. Once the new southbound lanes are open, demolish the existing northbound lanes.

Once this segment from Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) to the Hillsborough River is done, start with the next segment. However, I am not sure if the FDOT will be doing the segments concurrently or staggered (in other words, work on one segment at a time or do the segments with three different contractors basically at the same time).

Once this is said and done on all three Interstate 275 segments, we should see eight lanes of travel, four lanes northbound and four lanes southbound plus a spacious median which can accommodate light rail or commuter rail based transit.

Did I say light rail or commuter rail based transit?

There was a recent Bay News 9 Viewer Center iPoll on 6 August 2007 asking viewers if the construction on Interstate 275 will make a difference as to traffic congestion in the Tampa Bay area when all is said and done. According to a response I posted, I think in the short term the improvements to Interstate 275 should address the traffic congestion issue but in the long run, it is not going to work without the introduction of rail-based mass transit.

Rail based mass transit is desperately needed in the Tampa Bay area for a lot of reasons, and the one chief reason is growth. We have commuters who live out there in the suburbs (like New Tampa, Carrollwood, Lutz and Palm Harbor just to name a few) and work in places such as downtown Tampa or downtown St. Petersburg or even in the Carillon area of northeast St. Petersburg. Why? You can thank unaffordable housing for one thing because most areas close to work are probably out of the price range, thereby having to live so far away and commute a long distance to work daily. We need a rail based mass transit system that will serve the three principal communities of the Tampa Bay area - Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater - supplanted by a system of feeder buses that will run between the smaller communities and the nearest rail station for a seamless commute to and from work. Don't forget the weekends and holidays too!

When we get Interstate 275 all said and done as to the proposed reconstruction we as a Tampa Bay area should seriously consider looking at rail based mass transit. The wide medians on the newly reconstructed segments of Interstate 4 and (coming soon) Interstate 275 should allow for the implementation of a rail based mass transit system. On the other hand, I came up with a drawing of what could happen if out transit needs go unchecked and we have to eventually expand Interstate 275 to at least 20 lanes:

After all, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale has rail based mass transit. So does Washington DC and Baltimore. So does Los Angeles. Don't forget, Orlando is getting rail based mass transit soon. But if we Tampa Bay area residents don't do anything about fixing our transit issues after Interstate 275 is reconstructed this is what navigating the Tampa Bay area will be like: New York City without the subway or commuter rail (and imagine the gridlock).

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Reflections on the Minneapolis bridge tragedy in relation to the Sunshine Skyway

We experienced another tragedy with the collapse of the bridge that carries Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on 1 August 2007. From seeing the video of the collapse as it happened it is believed that there are injuries and deaths as a result of the bridge collapse. But before I go on further, please let me say that my thoughts go out to the families affected by this bridge collapse.

It brings back memories of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster that happened on 9 May 1980. For most of us living in the Tampa Bay area around that time we definitely remember what happened. The freighter Summit Venture collided with the southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in a blinding rainstorm at 7:38 AM, first striking a major channel pier and then striking the pier immediately south of the major channel pier. This pier - which held up the south cantilever - upon impact by the ship and the pier being sheared off at the base began a series of events that led to 1,260 feet of concrete and steel dropped 150 feet into Tampa Bay taking with it 35 lives including several on a Greyhound bus headed for Miami. Only two people survived this terrible tribulation: Richard Hornbuckle who managed to stop his Buick only 14 inches from going over the edge and Wesley McIntire who went off the bridge but managed to survive by escaping from his pickup truck and swimming upwards to the surface where he was rescued by the crew of the Summit Venture.

I remember that morning when I was getting ready for school and it was raining. Then I heard on the radio that a ship was on a collision course with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Later on when I saw the pictures on TV at school I was shocked to see a Sunshine Skyway Bridge missing a tooth: 1,260 feet of bridge from just south of the north main channel pier to the pier south of the pier that was destroyed by the ship. The images of these channel piers plus the wreckage on the bow of the Summit Venture would be indeed ingrained in our memories for the forseeable future. For the next seven years the monument to disaster on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge would be that main channel pier on the south side of the shipping channel that held up the southbound span (that's the channel pier that looked different than the other three main channel piers as a result of repairs done in 1969, two years before the southbound span opened in 1971). That monument to disaster was torn down in 1991 when the old Sunshine Skyway was demolished.

Back when the Sunshine Skyway fell in 1980 Interstate 275 was not part of the Sunshine Skyway yet - that would come seven years later when the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge opened and Interstate 275 was completed through St. Petersburg. The rest of the Sunshine Skyway's minor bridges and highway were brought up to interstate standards including the drawbridges that were torn down and reconstructed as high level fixed span bridges in the early 1990's. After all, none of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge spans (1954 and 1971) were built to interstate standards. Right after the tragedy there was talk of not including the Sunshine Skyway with Interstate 275; however, the construction of Interstate 275 was a crucial asset to the Tampa Bay area and, as such, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as we know it today is that crucial link to Interstate 275.

As for the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis, it carries Interstate 35W as it crosses the Mississippi River and through metropolitan Minneapolis. A companion interstate highway, Interstate 35E, carries traffic through St. Paul, which is Minnesota's state capital. Interstate 35 is unique in that it has two route designations as it passes through two metropolises, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Dallas/Ft. Worth.

Back when the Interstate Highway System was planned these letter suffixes were allowed but the United States DOT's Federal Highway Administration, acting on the advice of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), did away with the suffixes and no longer allowed their use. However, the Interstate 35W and 35E designations were allowed to be grandfathered. Here in the Tampa Bay area when Interstate 75 was being constructed it was planned for Interstate 75 to go through the metropolitan areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg and the bypass route was planned to be Interstate 75E. The routes were constructed but the numbering didn't happen as planned as letter suffixes were no longer allowed when the bypass route was being planned. Today Interstate 75 runs on the newly constructed bypass route that takes it east of Tampa and the original Interstate 75 that goes into Tampa and St. Petersburg is today's Interstate 275.

Please feel free to browse the Interstate 275 Florida site and be sure to check out the Sunshine Skyway Bridge page. Your comments and reflections, especially about the recent bridge collapse tragedy in Minneapolis, are always welcome.