Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Snow ... in Florida?

While watching Bay News 9 and chief meteorologist Mike Clay giving the weather almanac for Wednesday, 19 January 2011 something rang a bell in my mind: On 19 January 1977 snow fell in Florida with snowflakes being seen as far south as Homestead.

That reminded me of an event that took place on Interstate 275 on that same date: The Howard Frankland Bridge was closed due to ice. Back in those days the Howard Frankland was just a single four-lane span and commuting between St. Petersburg and Tampa was a challenge. We only had three TV stations back then - WFLA Channel 8 (which has been the Tampa Bay area's NBC affiliate since 1955), WTSP Channel 10 (which was an ABC affiliate, now a CBS affiliate) and WTVT Channel 13 (which was a CBS affiliate, now a Fox Owned and Operated station) - that we could get our news from but only certain times of the day, compared to today where you could flip on Bay News 9 (if you're a Bright House Networks subscriber), get your weather and traffic, and be on your way.

However, Florida's roads and bridges were not designed for travel during periods of icy weather unlike other states, where winter weather is the norm and roads have to be deiced. On a bridge, the hazard from ice is much greater as you are on a concrete deck and there is no room for error; this was the case with the original Howard Frankland Bridge as there were no emergency shoulders on the original bridge prior to its refurbishment as the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 in 1992, a year after the new 1991 southbound lanes opened.

Back on that day in January 1977 when it snowed in Florida, the Florida Highway Patrol did not want to take any chances with motorists on a narrow, 4-lane bridge crossing Tampa Bay which was known for a lot of accidents. As such, the Howard Frankland was closed to traffic making commuting between St. Petersburg and Tampa very difficult.

Now I would like to find out where you were in the Tampa Bay area on 19 January 1977 when it snowed in Florida and you had to either find another way to St. Petersburg or Tampa crossing Tampa Bay or you had to stay home because the Howard Frankland Bridge was closed due to ice. I do remember the memories very well, and that weather almanac on Bay News 9 jogged my memory.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A new year - and more Interstate 275 construction!

Happy new year from! By now the holidays have winded down and things have returned to normal, including the morning and evening commutes out there on Interstate 275.

With the new year comes new construction. Whoa! New construction on Interstate 275? Yes, it's a fact of life and if you want your commute to be a little quicker, improvements have to be done.

For the most part, Interstate 275 in the Tampa Bay area is generally six lanes with some pockets of four lane sections. However, there are significant four lane sections of Interstate 275, one south of Pinellas Point Drive South (Exit 16) to the southern terminus at Interstate 75 near Ellenton including the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and the other four lane section north of Bearss Avenue (Exit 53) to the northern terminus at Interstate 75 near Wesley Chapel.

Fortunately, the four lane section on Interstate 275 north of Exit 53 is going to get a makeover, according to this Bay News 9 article by Chuck Henson as well as this article over at Tampa Bay Interstates, the Florida DOT's official source of Tampa Bay area interstate highway construction.

The four lane section north of Exit 53 will be upgraded to six lanes, with the new lanes being built in the median according to Tampa Bay Interstates. This will transform Interstate 275 from Exit 53 to Interstate 75 from a rural four lane highway to an urban six lane highway, which is desperately needed due to the rapid growth in the area surrounding Wesley Chapel.

The end result will be Interstate 275 being a continuous six lane highway from Interstate 75 south through Tampa and St. Petersburg, with pockets of four lane highway at the interchange with Interstate 4 (Exit 45B) as well as another brief segment at FL 60 (Exit 39). This will mean better capacity for the morning and evening commutes.

According to Tampa Bay Interstates, construction on this segment is supposed to begin on 6 January 2011 and wrap up sometime in Fall 2012. As with any construction, it is going to mean construction barricades, enhanced Florida Highway Patrol presence and reduced speed limits, so plan ahead. Remember, speeding fines are doubled in construction zones!

While we're on this particular Interstate 275 segment, you should know that this used to be the original Interstate 75 back in the days when the highway ended in Tampa. It was originally constructed in 1964, ending just south of Bearss Avenue (which is today's Interstate 275 Exit 53) leaving a gap in northern Tampa from Bearss Avenue to Interstate 4. The gap was closed in 1967 when Interstate 275 was opened providing for an uninterrupted continuous interstate highway from Tampa to Atlanta.

There is one overpass between Bearss Avenue and Interstate 75, and that is Livingston Road. This overpass was built as part of the original 1964 construction and over the years it has seen plenty of use. What puzzles me is due to the rapid growth in the surrounding area, would the Florida DOT consider building an interchange at Livingston Road to serve the residents of the surrounding area as well as make Interstate 275 easier to access rather than having to go to Bearss Avenue?

Converting Livingston Road from an overpass to a full fledged interchange is not easy. As Interstate 275 is part of the Interstate Highway System, any modifications made including new interchanges not only have to be approved by the Florida DOT, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the United States DOT has to give their blessing before any interchange additions and/or modifications can be done. Engineering studies have to be done and justifications made to meet and/or exceed federal and Florida requirements. After all, the concept of the Interstate Highway System is that you cannot access any interstate highway - including Interstate 275 - at any location you desire; you can access Interstate 275 only at a designated interchange.

I am not sure what the Florida DOT will do regarding Livingston Road as it crosses Interstate 275. I imagine the Florida DOT will leave the overpass in place for the time being, at least until it is decided to upgrade Livingston Road from an overpass to a full fledged interchange. Moreover, I imagine that if Livingston Road is indeed upgraded, the overpass would more than likely be rebuilt to today's standards.