Saturday, February 2, 2008

Interstate 275 and the two feeders in St. Petersburg: To set the record straight

Recently I received an email through the feedback page from someone claiming to be a professional highway engineer. Why I say the word "claiming" is that sometimes there are people out there who say they are when in fact they are not.

Here is the text of the email I received (I edited it to clean up the language):

Hi, I'm a professional highway engineer. I don't know how you can get so excited about a ... joke of an interstate highway, which is what I-275 is, and pathetically it is the only freeway in Pinellas County! (I-175 and I-375 are simply glorified feeder ramps and do not deserve to have their own route number).

I am going to set the record straight as to why Interstate 275 was pushed through southern Pinellas County and the two feeder highways, Interstate 375 and Interstate 175.

First, when the interstate system was being constructed in the Tampa Bay area in the 1960's and 1970's Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg as we know it today was not going to be Interstate 275 in the first place. The highway was initially supposed to be a continuation of Interstate 4 which was planned to end around St. Pete Beach (and it was not intended to be routed over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to begin with, as it was a two-lane cantilever span back then). The only reminder of what it was yesterday can be found on a mileage sign as you drive northbound on Interstate 275 as you pass the 4 St N (Exit 32) exit: Tampa International Airport 7 miles, Tampa 11 miles and Lakeland 45 miles. Now we know that Lakeland is not on Interstate 275 - it's on Interstate 4.

Second, when the Florida DOT decided to push Interstate 75 through Tampa southward to Miami, Interstate 4 was truncated at what we Tampa Bay area residents know as "malfunction junction", which is Interstate 275's Exit 45B in Tampa. Interstate 75 was simply extended over the Howard Frankland Bridge into St. Petersburg.

Third, a Tampa bypass was in the works as Interstate 75 was being pushed through St. Petersburg and it was initially going to be Interstate 75E. But the organization responsible for the numbering of our nation's interstate highways, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (or AASHTO for short), put an end to the practice of letter-suffixing interstate highway numbers. So, the Florida DOT decided on routing Interstate 75 over the bypass route and renumbering Interstate 75 as it was being constructed through St. Petersburg as Interstate 275.

Fourth, what about our two feeder interstate highways in downtown St. Petersburg, Interstates 375 and 175? I believe these highways are not "glorified feeder ramps" as referred to in the email I received; instead these two short highways are spur routes of Interstate 275 that serve the downtown St. Petersburg area. Remember, as these interstate highways are spur routes (meaning they end with no interstate highway connection at the other end) the first digit in the three digit number will be odd. Back when Interstate 4 was planned the feeder routes were only shown on planning documents as Interstates 304 and 104.

By the way, a ramp is a short one- or two-lane low speed road that connects a street or highway to or from an interstate highway in a safe manner. Interstates 375 and 175 have their own exit and entrance ramps just like Interstate 275: Interstate 375 at Martin Luther King St N, 8 St N (entrance only), 4 Av N and 5 Av N just before 5 St N (eastern terminus) and Interstate 175 at Martin Luther King St S and 6 St S (westbound entrance and eastbound exit only) as well as 5 Av S (eastbound terminus exit only) and 4 St S (westbound entrance). But the mainline of both Interstates 375 and 175 are identical to the mainline of Interstate 275 for the two feeders' entire length.

And fifth, southern Pinellas was the only part of Pinellas County to have the totally controlled access freeway, which we know today as Interstate 275. Back in the 1960's and early to mid-1970's Clearwater and northern Pinellas County was not as developed as it is today. In other words, interstate highway service into Clearwater back then was not justified. But contrast this to the Clearwater and northern Pinellas County as we know today: That was a big mistake.

However, with the conversion of US 19 in Clearwater and northern Pinellas County to an interstate-like highway I would advocate a connection to Interstate 275, starting south on US 19 around Palm Harbor and routing it all the way to just north of Park/Gandy Blvd. (FL 694). Then have the new highway turn east and follow an upgraded version of Gandy Blvd. passing Interstate 275 (which would have a reconfigured interchange) to Tampa, connecting it at the Crosstown Expressway. Besides, an upgraded Gandy would be a beneficial hurricane evacuation route. We could call this highway Interstate 875 and I have an idea for a Gandy makeover and Interstate 875 here at simply by clicking here.

While we are on the subject of route numbers, posting a route number is not as easy as you think. For a route newly constructed or upgraded to interstate standards to get an interstate route number this is what has to be done. First, an application has to be submitted to AASHTO from the Florida DOT (or any other states' DOT for that matter) that details the justification and need. Second, AASHTO reviews the request and makes a decision: If the request is denied the application is sent back to the requestor; however, if the application is approved there is one more step. Third, an application approved by AASHTO to establish and/or change an interstate route number has to be sent to the Federal Highway Administration within the United States DOT for their review and concurrence. Now you see?

Let's backtrack for a moment on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and its role as an interstate highway. When the original cantilever spans were built in 1954 and 1971, these spans were not up to interstate standards. When the decision was made to push Interstate 75 southward to Miami the twin cantilever bridges of the Sunshine Skyway were proposed to be brought up to interstate standards. However, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge disaster on 9 May 1980 turned things around a bit: For a while the Sunshine Skyway was being considered as not being part of Interstate 275. In 1981 Interstate 275's future insofar as the Sunshine Skyway was concerned had a bright outlook as a new cable stayed bridge as we know it today would replace the two incompatible cantilever spans.

Hopefully I should set the record straight as to why Interstate 275 was pushed through St. Petersburg and southern Pinellas County and the reasoning behind the two feeder interstates in downtown St. Petersburg, Interstates 375 and 175. As always, I welcome your comments!

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