Sunday, April 26, 2009

Northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa on new alignment

If you have been by northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa from Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) to Downtown Tampa (Exit 44), things look a lot different! In fact, it almost looks like Interstate 4 in Tampa which has been recently reconstructed not too long ago.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, 25 April 2009, the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 in Tampa from Himes Avenue to Downtown Tampa were transitioned over to a new alignment (or a new traffic pattern). Here are some pictures I got on Saturday afternoon, several hours after the alignment switch took place.

Here are one of many variable message signs in St. Petersburg warning motorists of the new traffic pattern in place on northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa and that major delays are possible. After all, the Florida DOT did not want to take any chances.

Next we see one of the many new signage erected for Exit 42, Armenia and Howard Avenues. This is on the temporary transition road that takes northbound Interstate 275 motorists from the old northbound lanes to the new northbound lanes.

Continuing on the new alignment for northbound Interstate 275 we see new signage for the exit to Armenia and Howard Avenues as well as the distances to Downtown Tampa (via Exit 44, Ashley Drive and Scott/Tampa Streets) and Interstate 4. Notice that the signs are mounted on a new gantry just like what was done on Interstate 275 at Interstate 4 as well as Interstate 4 east of Interstate 275. Here motorists are reminded that the right lane is an exit lane for Armenia and Howard Avenues.

Next we see the final opportunity for Armenia and Howard Avenues from northbound Interstate 275. Notice that this exit has two lanes rather than the original one lane exit and it is a dedicated ramp rather than the side street you had to enter right after you exit in the past.

We're now past Armenia and Howard Avenues and our next exit is Downtown Tampa (which is signed simply as Downtown, Exit 44) coming up in one mile, while the entrance to eastbound Interstate 4 (Exit 45B) is coming up in two miles. Right after this sign gantry things on northbound Interstate 275 level out better than the old "roller coaster" effect of the old northbound lanes.

We're now getting our first destinations for Downtown West on Exit 44. As the sign indicates, use Tampa Street to reach the Tampa Convention Center or Ashley Drive to reach the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Notice that the sign gantry is a little different here as it is supposed to accommodate a future variable message sign similar to the variable message signs found on Interstate 275 not only in Tampa but St. Petersburg as well. I got to agree here, this sign mounted on an overhead gantry is much easier to read and interpret than its ground based counterpart on the old northbound lanes.

Next up is Downtown East, also on Exit 44. Use Scott Street to reach the St. Petersburg Times Forum (shortened on the sign to St. Pete Times Forum) as well as the Florida Aquarium located in the Channelside area. Once you get off onto Scott Street, follow it east until you get to Jefferson Street. Right on Jefferson Street and follow the signs for the St. Petersburg Times Forum and/or the Florida Aquarium.

Another note as we go along: Why did the Florida DOT construct a retaining wall to the right on the new Interstate 275 northbound lanes? The view of Downtown Tampa was splendid on the old Interstate 275 northbound lanes.

Here's the intermediate signage for Downtown Tampa. Presently the "exit only" panels have been greened out as a temporary measure as construction is still taking place (as of April 2009) so that the lanes can be marked as through traffic lanes. When this is all said and done, when you get to this sign gantry you will choose which Downtown Tampa destination you are headed to. But I got to admit, this new segment of Interstate 275 in Tampa is much better than the old segment due to the "roller coaster" effect which was how the original highway was built back in the early 1960's. After all, modern Interstate highway construction of the 21st Century incorporates a smooth ride by design which also makes the highway safer for everyone.

Finally, we come to our last overhead sign which was erected as part of the new northbound Interstate 275 project. Here we see the final opportunity for Downtown Tampa with its two lanes (one lane for Scott Street and the other lane for Ashley Drive and Tampa Street). Like the previous photo, the "exit only" panels have been greened out as a temporary measure until the construction is finished. Interstate 4 is just around the corner after this exit and we also see through signage for northbound Interstate 275 to Ocala, which is via Interstate 275's parent, Interstate 75.

Again, I got to admit the signage on the new northbound Interstate 275 alignment is much better to read and better to interpret than the old. On the older signage the messages seem to be crammed together.

Now this new alignment of northbound Interstate 275 is part of a major Interstate 275 reconstruction puzzle which will run from the Tampa International Airport exit (Exit 39, FL 60) all the way to Downtown Tampa at Exit 44. However, the old Interstate 275 northbound lanes will be getting some temporary use: The old northbound lanes will soon become the temporary southbound lanes for Interstate 275 while the permanent southbound lanes for Interstate 275 are being reconstructed. If you have seen a fence on the stub end of the new northbound Interstate 275 alignment at Himes Avenue, the fence is not permanent - west of Himes Avenue will be another segment of a reconstructed Interstate 275.

When all the pieces of the Interstate 275 reconstruction puzzle in Tampa from Tampa International Airport to Downtown Tampa are done, Interstate 275 will have a total of eight lanes - four lanes in either direction. To keep up with the progress of Interstate 275 in Tampa as it is slowly being reconstructed you may want to visit the Florida DOT's site for Interstate construction in the Tampa Bay area,

And one more thing: Keep an eye out on your speed while traversing the construction zones on Interstate 275. The Florida Highway Patrol is very keen about enforcing the speed limits and speeding fines are doubled for exceeding the speed limit in a construction zone, especially when construction workers are present.

The pictures you see here today will eventually make it onto the website soon. However, it is having to undergo more recoding as my web hosting provider is discontinuing support for the FrontPage Server Extensions and the photos - organized as a photo gallery which indeed depends on the FrontPage Server Extensions - will have to be recoded in HTML. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures and feel free to comment.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Interstate 275 Tampa Major Congestion Alert

If you plan on using northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa from the Tampa International Airport interchange (Exit 39) to Downtown Tampa (Exit 44), you need to read this blog entry carefully. This weekend (24 through 26 April 2009) will see expected major congestion on northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa, with congestion at times extending across the Howard Frankland Bridge into St. Petersburg.

In a previous blog post the new northbound lanes of Interstate 275 from Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) to Downtown Tampa (Exit 44) are scheduled to open to traffic. However, making a traffic switch is not your typical traffic switch as certain activities such as paving can only be done when traffic is actually switch from the old to the new northbound lanes. In fact, just recently we have seen the exit ramp from northbound Interstate 275 to Tampa International Airport (TIA) closed periodically throughout the weekend in order to perform construction related tasks that cannot be done when you got traffic flowing through on the highway; this closure brought about detours and inconvenience for those headed to TIA.

Before I go on further, let me give you some words of advice if you plan on using northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa this weekend: If your travel plans don’t include using Interstate 275 northbound this weekend, plan on finding a different route. If you plan on catching a flight at Tampa International Airport, leave earlier than usual.

If you are headed to Downtown Tampa or anywhere east of Tampa (including Interstate 4 and Orlando including the theme parks), a great alternative route would be Gandy Blvd. (US 92) via the Gandy Bridge to the Selmon Crosstown Expressway. Follow the Selmon Crosstown Expressway east and that will take you to Downtown Tampa (Exits 6A/B) and Ybor City (Exit 9). If you are headed towards Interstate 4 and Orlando, stay on the Selmon Crosstown Expressway until you get to Interstate 75; north on Interstate 75 for about 4 miles to Interstate 4. Once you are on Interstate 4 east from Interstate 75 north that will take you out of the congestion expected on Interstate 275 north in Tampa this weekend. Remember, the Crosstown Expressway is a toll road so have cash or your SunPass handy; believe me, the toll is well worth it.

Again, if you must use Interstate 275 north in Tampa this weekend, leave earlier than usual. This is very important if you are headed to Tampa International Airport to catch a flight.

Now the schedule of events that will take place on Interstate 275 in Tampa in the vicinity of the new northbound lanes over the course of this weekend according to the Florida DOT:

Traffic impacts to northbound Interstate 275 will begin at 9 PM on Friday, 24 April 2009.

From 8 PM Friday (24 April 2009) to 8 AM Saturday (25 April 2009) the entrance to northbound Interstate 275 from Dale Mabry Highway (Exit 41) will be closed. Best to use Lois Avenue (Exit 40B) or Howard Avenue (Exit 42) to reach northbound Interstate 275.

9 PM Friday (24 April 2009): Of Interstate 275’s three northbound lanes, one or two will be closed from Lois Avenue (Exit 40B) to Downtown Tampa (Exit 44). Additionally, at Exit 44 the ramps to Ashley Drive or Scott Street will be closed until 5:30 AM Saturday morning; traffic will be detoured to whatever Exit 44 ramp is open (in other words, if Ashley is closed traffic will be diverted onto Scott and vice versa).

Traffic should be shifted to the new northbound Interstate 275 lanes by Saturday morning. However, the new northbound lanes will be in a two lane northbound configuration until around 5:30 AM Monday, 27 April 2009.

Even when the new northbound lanes are fully opened in their three lane northbound configuration Monday morning, there will be no additional planned lanes until this coming Fall as additional widening has to take place. As a result, motorists will see three northbound lanes on the new segment of Interstate 275 of varying widths and trucks will see a restriction to use only the middle lane. Moreover, the speed limit will be reduced to 45 mph until the project is completed; expect heavy Florida Highway Patrol presence as speeding fines are doubled within construction work zones.

Also as a part of this major traffic switch this weekend the northbound ramp onto Interstate 275 from Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) is scheduled to re-open on Monday, 27 April 2009.

Once again, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of finding an alternative route this weekend if your travel plans include northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa from TIA to Downtown Tampa. Moreover, if you must use northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa this weekend – such as catching a flight out of Tampa International Airport – please leave earlier than usual. Gandy and the Selmon Crosstown Expressway is a great alternative to avoid the expected mass congestion on northbound Interstate 275 this weekend.

After all, making improvements to Interstate 275 in the Tampa Bay area will mean inconveniences for you and me from time to time. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that will be an improved Interstate 275.

And by the way, if you get caught in the expected mass congestion on northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa please let me know by posting your experiences.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Did the Interstate 375 ramp get fixed – or what?

If you have not been by southbound Interstate 275 at the entrance to Interstate 375 lately you may have noticed some differences in the way you are warned just as you get on the high ramp flyover from the left lane. I was surprised when I saw the improvements but these improvements are not enough – yet.

When you are in the left lane to transition from southbound Interstate 275 to eastbound Interstate 375, you are greeted by two kinds of signage recently erected by the good old folks over at the Florida DOT. Here is a description of the signage as you make the transition from Interstate 275 south to Interstate 375 east:

1. On the left side of the southbound lanes of Interstate 275 as you get ready to pass the final overhead sign gantry for Interstate 375, you see a diamond shaped yellow warning sign which is ground mounted. That sign indicates that you are approaching a 50 mph speed zone.

2. Right after you pass the final opportunity for Interstate 375 east from Interstate 275 south, you are greeted by not one but two signs that flank either side of the two lane exit ramp carrying eastbound Interstate 375 traffic: Speed limit 50 mph signs, and this time these signs are regulatory (black text on a white background). In other words, the Exit 50 mph black on yellow advisory signage has been removed.

3. New reflectors mounted on the right hand Jersey barrier wall as you navigate the flyover onto eastbound Interstate 375. These delineate where the Jersey barrier wall is.

So, did the Florida DOT do something to address this increasingly dangerous ramp? The signage is good but not good enough.

In fact, there was a recent article by none other than Drew Harwell at the St. Petersburg Times that briefly explains the improvements done by the Florida DOT. After I have read the article, more work needs to be done – in fact, major work needs to be done to fix this ramp.

More signage needs to be placed in addition to the rudimentary 50 mph ahead and speed limit signage. Over in Tampa at Exit 39 from Interstate 275 southbound there are large warning signs erected with the graphic of the tipping truck because of the design of the ramp which does indeed command reduced speed.

So, here’s my “laundry list” of improvements that the Florida DOT needs to make in the short and mid-term for the dangerous Interstate 375 flyover in downtown St. Petersburg. Hey, Florida DOT, are you reading this?

1. Place an Interstate 375 shield assembly just above the 50 mph ahead warning sign. That way, it lets motorists know that the speed reduction applies only to those motorists who are headed onto eastbound Interstate 375 from southbound Interstate 275.

2. Place yellow warning beacons on top of the Speed Limit 50 signage that was recently erected as an emphasis to let motorists know of the utmost need to reduce speed. After all, there is another set of yellow warning beacons at the end of Interstate 375 where all eastbound traffic is defaulted onto 4 Av N and the speed limit is further reduced to 30 mph.

Now let me emphasize this item a little further. Back when the advisory signage on yellow background was posted the Florida Highway Patrol could not write tickets for anyone going over the 50 mph advisory speed limit on the Interstate 375 flyover. Why? That advisory signage on yellow background was purely advisory in nature and it did not carry the full force and effect of Section 316.183 of the Florida Statutes. In essence, the 65 mph speed limit from Interstate 275 still applied to the Interstate 375 flyover until just before you reach the first sign gantry on eastbound Interstate 375; you had (and still have today) Speed Limit 50 signs flanking either side of the eastbound lanes. Now that the Speed Limit 50 signs have been erected before the flyover, the Florida Highway Patrol can now enforce the reduced speed limit on the flyover and hand out traffic tickets for anyone caught going way too fast on the flyover ramp.

If we step on over to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices – the MUTCD for short – we can understand what the color backgrounds of traffic signs in the USA mean. Yellow coveys a warning message just like the message of the diamond shaped sign before you approach a drawbridge (and the sign is basically the same name, Draw Bridge Ahead), while white conveys a regulatory message informing motorists what can or cannot be done just like the speed limit message. Notice for a moment the meaning of a sign on a white background; it conveys that a certain traffic law which is the subject of the traffic sign must be obeyed at this particular location; for instance, when you travel south on 4 St N towards Gandy Blvd. and you see the Speed Limit 40 sign, you had better reduced your speed to 40 mph or the St. Petersburg Police Department will pull you over and give you a traffic ticket.

(Psst! Want to learn more about traffic signs? Richard Moeur has a great website on traffic signs, simply click on this link - it's well worth a read! If you are using Internet Explorer 7, you may want to click on that link by right clicking and selecting "open link as a new tab"; that way, you can easily refer back and forth between pages!)

3. Further north on Interstate 275 just about ½ to ¾ mile north of Interstate 375, place signage either ground mounted in the median or a partial overhead gantry mounted in the median warning motorists of the upcoming flyover ahead and the need to begin reducing speed to 50 mph if you intend to exit onto Interstate 375 from southbound Interstate 275. Supplement this with two yellow hazard beacons mounted on top of the sign if you need to place extra emphasis.

4. On the flyover ramp itself, mount a series of left chevrons on the Jersey barrier wall on the right side of the flyover ramp. This will let motorists know that the ramp curves to the left.

5. When the Interstate 375 flyover ramp – as well as the Interstate 275 viaduct which begins at Interstate 375 – was built in 1977, brackets and duct work were put in place to mount highway lighting. Unfortunately, these brackets were not used; instead, high mast lighting was used. Get rid of the high mast lighting and instead place highway lighting on the overpass brackets; if the Florida DOT wants to keep the high mast lighting do so as extra emphasis for safety reasons.

Now we need to explore one more probable safety item, and that is over at Interstate 375’s cousin, Interstate 175 (which is Exit 22 on Interstate 275, the south Downtown St. Petersburg distributor that serves Tropicana Field (Let's Go Rays!), the two hospitals (Bayfront Medical Center and All Children’s Hospital) and the Mahaffey Theater as well as the St. Petersburg Campus of the University of South Florida). The design of the flyover ramp for Interstate 175 eastbound from Interstate 275 southbound is similar to the design for Interstate 375 and it also requires left lane exit. However, this flyover is a low level flyover in which you go under the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 but the curve banking is much more treacherous than the flyover over at Interstate 375. As this flyover goes over one of Tropicana Field’s parking lots, if you don’t slow down you’ll end up off the ramp and into the parking lot for Tropicana Field – and believe me, you’ll end up being transported to Bayfront Medical Center’s ER rather than a Rays game.

The only warning posted for the Interstate 175 ramp from southbound Interstate 275 is nothing more than a 50 mph ramp advisory sign on a yellow background mounted on the left hand Jersey barrier on the Interstate 275 viaduct just before you exit. Is the Florida DOT waiting for a serious accident to happen on the Interstate 175 flyover as well?

Which leads me to the ultimate major improvement for both eastbound Interstates 375 and 175 from southbound Interstate 275: Construct a right hand exit starting midway between 5 Av N and 22 Av N and have this right hand exit serve 5 Av N, Interstate 375 and Interstate 175. That would mean everyone headed to Downtown St. Petersburg has to use this exit, and that includes anyone wanting to take in a Rays game at Tropicana Field. In other words, it would mean a centralized exit for all of Downtown St. Petersburg from Interstate 275 southbound.

But we don’t know if this major improvement may ever be built. You have major land acquisition issues in this area, not to mention that few homes in this general area are designated as historic landmarks. Then you have the financial issue; in this day and age of the current economy the money isn’t there to do what’s needed. However, there’s the trade-off, and that is motorist safety.

And by the way, if you haven’t read the original St. Petersburg Times article on 6 March 2009, here’s a link straight to the article. Moreover, I also urge you to please read my blog entry on a major attempt by my employer to silence me if you haven’t already. And don’t worry, the Interstate 275 Blog and will continue to be around for years to come, and I will assure you that my employer will not infringe – or even attempt to infringe - on my First Amendment rights.