Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Another tragic accident at Interstate 375, Exit 23

Exit 23, which is also known on Interstate 275 as the Interstate 375 exit into downtown St. Petersburg, was the scene of yet another fatal accident Monday evening, 2 March 2009. According to a St. Petersburg Times article, a car traveling southbound on Interstate 275 lost control as it negotiated the exit ramp from southbound Interstate 275 onto eastbound Interstate 375, falling into the City of St. Petersburg’s Water Resources maintenance yard below. Unfortunately, the driver of this car did not survive the crash.

This accident is reminiscent of what happened almost two years ago when the driver of a tanker truck lost control on this same exit ramp and the tanker burst into flames as it fell into the city maintenance yard on the ground. The ramp from southbound Interstate 275 to eastbound Interstate 375 was closed for several weeks as crews had to demolish and rebuild sections of the flyover ramp as the intense heat from the tanker truck fire made parts of the flyover ramp unsafe.

You are probably asking yourself, “Why is Exit 23 becoming unsafe”? It’s a good question which deserves a good answer.

First, let’s start with an excerpt from a letter that I wrote to the St. Petersburg Times shortly after the 2007 tanker truck accident:

When this section of Interstate 275 was built in 1977 I believe the exit onto Interstate 375 (Exit 23A) should have been constructed as a right hand exit with access to 5th Avenue North. However, when the interstate was built with the left exit onto Interstate 375 the signage was well marked with advisories and warnings regarding the left exit and the reduced speed limit to 50 mph.

As a result of numerous sign replacement projects including the most recent one in conjunction with a concrete pavement rehabilitation project a while ago the left exit advisory signage - including the yellow "exit only" panel on the bottom of the sign - was replaced with nothing more than a diagrammatic sign without any mention of a left exit advisory. Any warning of a left exit onto Interstate 375 (or its counterpart, Interstate 175) from Interstate 275 today is nothing more than a little post mounted "Exit 50 mph" sign on the left side. I agree, once you are on that ramp onto Interstate 375 it's too late.

Next, let’s go over two important issues as to why Exit 23 is getting dangerous:

1. The Exit 23 ramps should have been built as a right exit which would have serviced both eastbound Interstate 375 as well as 5 Av N. A right hand exit is much safer as it promotes a safer highway by not having traffic jockeying for the correct lane as you approach the exit. Moreover, through traffic would continue to flow freely through St. Petersburg on Interstate 275 if the Exit 23 southbound off ramps were constructed as a right exit.

Presently Exit 23 from southbound Interstate 275 is a right exit – but only for Exit 23B, which is the exit for 5 Av N. Those wishing to reach downtown St. Petersburg by way of Interstate 375, also known as Exit 23A, must exit from the left lane.

2. The signage for Exit 23 from southbound as well as northbound Interstate 275 is inadequate as far as ramp warnings are concerned.

Back in 1977 when this section of Interstate 275 opened it featured signage for Interstate 375 complete with a bottom “Exit Only” panel and a large side mounted 50 mph advisory sign on the left side of the road. The same thing applied to northbound Interstate 275 at Exit 23 only that the exit is a right hand exit unlike its southbound counterpart.

Thirty years and several sign replacement projects later, this is what we see on Interstate 275 at Exit 23 in St. Petersburg:

No “Exit Only” warning on the bottom sign panel.

Small post mounted “Exit 50 mph” sign on the left hand ramp.

Diagrammatic advance signage that is adequate, but not adequate enough.

A sign with the word “Left” in black lettering on a yellow background placed atop the Exit 23 tab.

A large diamond right curve along with a very small 35 mph advisory sign on the right hand ramp from northbound Interstate 275.

Steep flyover ramps connecting Interstate 375 with Interstate 275, especially the one lane ramp from northbound Interstate 275 to eastbound Interstate 375.

You do not know that you are transitioning from Interstate 275 to Interstate 375 until it’s too late. In other words, you think you are headed to Bradenton/Sarasota or Tampa until you find out you are in downtown St. Petersburg.

A 3-foot high barrier is what separates you from a three story fall into the City of St. Petersburg Water Resources Department’s maintenance yard, with the only exception of a small chain link fence mounted atop the barrier on the left side of the ramp from northbound Interstate 275 to eastbound Interstate 375. Of course there are shoulders on each side, but the shoulders are not wide enough.

Now that you have the facts in hand, here are my recommendations to get Interstate 275 at Exit 23 (Interstate 375) fixed:

1. Erect large “tipping truck” warning signs along with flashing beacons on the ramps to Interstate 375 from both southbound and northbound Interstate 275. The signage is similar to warning signage on southbound Interstate 275 at Exit 39 in Tampa, where the ramp onto westbound FL 60 is an extremely sharp turn to the right.

2. Place easier to read and interpret warning signage on the advance signage for Interstate 375 from Interstate 275 on both directions. Signage stating that the exit is a left exit is good but not good enough.

3. In the long term, and when the economy gets back on track, consider relocating the exit for Interstate 375 from a left hand exit to a right hand exit. Another possibility would be to have all traffic for Interstate 375, Interstate 175 and 5 Av N exit Interstate 275 north of 5 Av N utilizing a dedicated right hand exit ramp which would collect traffic from Interstate 275 headed to downtown St. Petersburg and distribute it among Interstate 175, Interstate 375 and 5 Av N. The ramp would look similar to a collector-distributor off ramp which services Jefferson Street, Ashley Drive/Tampa Street and Doyle Carlton Drive from southbound Interstate 275 and westbound Interstate 4 in downtown Tampa.

I recently have drawn a diagram of what Interstate 275 at Interstate 375 looks like today compared to how it should have been built in 1977.

How many more accidents are we going to see at Exit 23 on Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg before the Florida DOT gets to doing something about it? How many more vehicles are going to end up in the City of St. Petersburg’s maintenance yard as a result of inadequate warning of the transition from Interstate 275 to Interstate 375 in downtown St. Petersburg?

You can read more about Interstate 375 in downtown St. Petersburg simply by clicking on this link to go over to the Interstate 375 page at Interstate275Florida.com. There you can see pictures of Interstate 375, including pictures of the interchange the morning after the 2007 tanker accident along with commentary.

Now I want your input on how we can fix the Exit 23 mess. Lastly, my condolences to the family of the driver who lost his life this past Monday (3/2/09) on Interstate 275 at Interstate 375.

An Update!

Recently the St. Petersburg Times did an article on how the ramp from southbound Interstate 275 to eastbound Interstate 375 and you can read it by clicking here. Hey, your Interstate275Florida.com webmaster is mentioned! Drew Harwell did a great job on this article.

One more item I forgot to mention in this blog entry is the lighting. When Interstate 275 and Interstate 375 was built in 1977, all the overpass bridges had brackets on the side for installation of highway lighting consistent with the rest of Interstate 275 through St. Petersburg. However, the Florida DOT opted for the high mast lighting throughout the viaduct section of Interstate 275 through Downtown St. Petersburg.

I think the highway lighting found on the sides of Interstate 275 should have been installed at the time Interstate 275 at Interstate 375 was built. If the highway lighting was better, it would have let motorists know of the ramp that is ahead, especially at night.


HARTride2012 said...

I agree that better lighting along the interstates may help. Though I undertand that FDOT likely installed the high mast lighting as a cost-efficiency measure.

Mesa Accident said...

Interesting. My heart goes out to the victims of this tragic accident. I believe there is a room for improvement for this dangerous hi-way.