Thursday, August 25, 2011

Here a Ramp, There a Ramp...

I know, it’s been a while since I posted here on the Interstate 275 Florida Blog. My days have been so busy at the office; with the staffing reductions that have taken place at where I work I have been taking on more and more stuff. When 5 o’clock rolls around after a very busy day you just want to pick up dinner, bring it home, and stretch out on the easy chair while you watch your big screen TV.

Enough of that for now. Lately there were two things taking place recently as far as Interstate 275 in the Tampa Bay area is concerned, so let’s get right down to business.

First, a new ramp has opened at Interstate 275’s northern terminus. Actually, it’s the ramp to FL 56 near the Pasco County town of Wesley Chapel that has been recently extended to accommodate traffic from not only northbound Interstate 275 the new ramp also accommodates traffic from northbound Interstate 75 as well.

So, how do you exit at FL 56 if you are coming from northbound Interstate 275 or 75? It’s easy: Just watch for the newly installed overhead signage for FL 56 and be prepared to be in your lane for the exit. If you are coming from northbound Interstate 275 you will use a dedicated flyover overpass going over Interstate 75 which is the off ramp to FL 56.

The purpose of lengthening the exit ramp at FL 56 is to separate traffic headed for the many residential developments in the area while at the same time keep traffic intended to transition from northbound Interstate 275 to northbound Interstate 75 moving at freeway speed. It also eliminates a dangerous weaving movement that used to exist when you transitioned onto Interstate 75 north from Interstate 275 and you had the FL 56 exit; remember when you had to do the “Hail Mary Pass” to get over to the next lane if you wanted to go north on Interstate 75 from Interstate 275 to avoid the exit only lane of FL 56?

While we’re on the subject of FL 56, the new exit ramp from northbound Interstate 275 and 75 carries Interstate 75’s exit number, Exit 275. To me, this is confusing to motorists as visitors from out of town coming to the Tampa Bay area to visit get the exit number confused for the Interstate route number that takes motorists into Tampa as well as St. Petersburg. For instance, a first time visitor to the Tampa Bay area arriving by motor vehicle will use Interstate 75 headed south. Along the way, mileage signs count the distance to the exit for Interstate 275.

Once the first time visitor passes the rest area in Wesley Chapel the visitor sees signage for Exit 275, which in reality is FL 56. The visitor exits at this exit, thinking that it is Interstate 275 and the visitor gets lost when he or she finds out that FL 56 is not the way to St. Petersburg – instead, the road merges into FL 54 to its western terminus at US 19 south of New Port Richey.

The exit for Interstate 275 south from Interstate 75 south is actually Exit 274. The only signage for the real Interstate 275 is a small trailblazer-type sign mounted on the right side of Interstate 75 south before approaching FL 56. Right after the FL 56 exit comes a series of large overhead guide signs for southbound Interstate 275 with an Exit 274 tab mounted on the upper right hand corner above the sign.

The Florida DOT needs to fix this confusing mess. As Florida’s interstate highway exits are now based on the mile marker based numbering system, I have driven by there and seen a 275 mile marker sign in the area where the interchange for Interstates 75 and 275 are located. According to generally adopted principles for mile marker based exit numbering, the interchange for Interstates 75 and 275 should have the designation of being Exit 275 and the interchange for FL 56 at Interstate 75 should have the designation of being Exit 276. I have also seen a 276 mile marker sign in the vicinity of the FL 56 interchange as well. Further north on Interstate 75, the next exit after the rest area is Exit 279, Pasco County Road 54 and Temporary FL 54.

OK. Let’s head south on Interstate 275 through Tampa and over the Howard Frankland Bridge into St. Petersburg so that I can tell you about another ramp; this time, the ramp at 38 Av N (Exit 25) from southbound Interstate 275. Being a dedicated exit only ramp, it has been the subject of a recent story by Bay News 9’s Real Time Traffic reporter Chuck Henson about drivers who use the exit only lane as a passing lane, cutting back over into the right through lane just before the 38 Av N exit. After seeing how this exit ramp is set up for myself, this ramp is an accident waiting to happen.

Just recently the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) began an enforcement program on Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg with an emphasis on speeders, aggressive drivers and seat belt violators. The operation is called Saving A Life Through Enforcement, or SALTE. According to the Bay News 9 article FHP recently issued 34 tickets to motorists on a small stretch of Interstate 275 between 38 Av N (Exit 25) and 54 Av N (Exit 26); the majority of these tickets were for motorists caught crossing what traffic engineers call the “theoretical gore”, the paved space where a ramp diverges from the mainline and is marked by heavy duty striping to discourage exiting motorists from jumping back onto the mainline at the last minute causing a potential accident.

How did this ramp configuration on southbound Interstate 275 at 38 Av N came to fruition? Well, here is a history which leads up to the present ramp configuration in place.

When this section of Interstate 275 opened in 1974, 38 Av N was at one time designated as a temporary end as construction progressed southward through St. Petersburg. The right lane then was a through lane with an exit ramp onto 38 Av N from southbound Interstate 275. Meanwhile, the left lane on the Interstate 275 mainline ended and merged into the middle lane which marked the transition from a middle lane to a left lane; signage was erected in the median stating that the left lane was ending in 1,000 and 500 feet respectively. That meant dangerous merges from an ending lane into a through lane.

During the 1989 sign replacement project the left lane was converted from an ending left lane to a through left lane. At the same time the right through lane was converted into a dedicated exit only lane for 38 Av N and overhead signage was installed reflecting the fact that the lane is now a dedicated exit lane rather than a through lane.

Perhaps the Florida DOT can make some improvements at the ramp to 38 Av N from southbound Interstate 275:

1. Remove the concrete pavement in what used to be the through right lane immediately beyond the entrance to the ramp to 38 Av N from southbound Interstate 275. This would put more meaning into the words “Exit Only” on overhead signage in black letters on a yellow background.

2. Remove the asphalt pavement that is now the through left lane and replace it with concrete, matching it up with the rest of the concrete pavement in the interchange area.

3. Remove the second entrance ramp onto Interstate 275 from 54 Av N (the ramp that takes traffic from eastbound 54 Av N to southbound Interstate 275). Have all traffic entering Interstate 275 southbound from 54 Av N use the first entrance ramp (that’s the circular entrance ramp that now takes traffic from westbound 54 Av N onto southbound Interstate 275). This could help reduce another “Hail Mary Merge” movement as motorists would have more time to transition onto or off of southbound Interstate 275 right after going under the 54 Av N underpass.

Problem solved!

With FHP’s enforcement of traffic laws on the southbound stretch of Interstate 275 between 54 Av N and 38 Av N here’s a tip on what to do if in the event you either miss your exit or end up exiting at an exit you did not intend to use:

If you miss your exit:

Go on to the next exit. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU GO INTO THE EMERGENCY LANE AND BACK UP YOUR VEHICLE! You may not cross the paved gap that separates the beginning of the ramp from the mainline; doing so can result in a traffic stop from FHP which can result in a ticket being issued. Same thing goes for backing up under any circumstances!

If you are caught in an Exit Only lane or exit onto a road that you did not intend to use:

Do not attempt to make a correction at the last minute. THIS CAN RESULT IN AN ACCIDENT! Instead, follow the ramp to the intersection; you should be able to go straight across the road when you have the green light depending on how the intersection is set up. If by any chance you cannot go straight through to reenter Interstate 275 you can turn left to reverse direction, go back to the previous exit and turn around again.

If you have exited onto another interstate highway such as Interstates 375 and 175 in St. Petersburg or Interstate 4 in Tampa, go to the first exit. There you can legally turn around and return to Interstate 275 in the direction you were going.

Again, do not cross the paved gap that separates the beginning of the ramp from the mainline. If an FHP trooper sees you doing this you can be liable for a traffic stop which can result in a ticket for a moving violation. The fines are steep – it can be as much as your car loan payment! (Try explaining this to your credit union when you have to skip a car loan payment due to a hefty traffic ticket; skip too many payments and your car is repossessed which is much easier to do than a mortgage foreclosure!)

As I wrote in a comment to the Bay News 9 article, what is wrong with leaving earlier so that you can arrive at your destination on time? If we did that then there would be no need to be in a hurry to get to work on time. Unfortunately, our Tampa Bay area mass transit system is so inept that reliance on a car to commute to and from work is mandatory; for that reason this is why companies looking to relocate in Florida do not want to relocate to the Tampa Bay metropolitan area due to extremely reduced commuting to work choices other than carpooling. I can go on forever regarding the lack of reliable mass transit in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area, but I’ll save it for another topic.

With the new exit ramp at FL 56 and the exit ramp rigmarole at 38 Av N (Exit 25), please feel free to share your commute stories here. Just one favor I would like to ask, and that is to keep the comments clean; when you post your comment it will not show up until I moderate it.