Commuters, take comfort

By Rich Shopes, Times Correspondent

Published Saturday, June 20, 2009

TAMPA — The project linking Interstate 4 to the Selmon Crosstown Expressway can't come soon enough for Laura Klopp, who figures the new highway could shave 15 minutes off her commute to downtown.

"I keep looking for updates. I can't wait for them to build this thing," says Klopp, who lives in Seffner and takes the Selmon Expressway each morning.

The expressway is a breezy 15 minutes. But for Klopp and thousands like her, getting to the toll road first means slogging through start-and-stop traffic in Brandon.

The connector will change that by giving motorists a direct route from I-4.

After more than a year of funding discussions, the Department of Transportation now says it will break ground on the project in January.

The department will seek bids for the $426 million project — essentially a mile-long bridge just west of 31st Street — in September and name a general contractor in October or November. Work is expected to last four years.

"It's such a large project, an extensive, elevated project, but when it's done it's going to help a lot of commuters, whether they're going to Ybor or going downtown," Transportation Department project manager Adam Perez said.

The link will unfold relatively painlessly for motorists who take I-4. Lane closures caused by the construction won't occur until nightfall, and they won't start for a year or two, depending on the contractor's schedule, Perez said.

But on the Selmon side, where the ramps and lane configurations are more complicated, drivers can expect to see closures both at night and during the day and in both eastbound and westbound directions. Those could begin next summer.

From now until the project starts, motorists might notice utility crews on the job site, between 31st Street and the CSX railroad tracks. Crews are moving water, sewer, electrical and phone lines. The site is mostly cleared. Once the bid is awarded, the first couple of months of the project will be spent putting equipment and trailers into place.

The contractor has the final say about where to start construction, but Perez said initially he expects the work to focus near the Selmon.

"For four years, this will be the biggest project in the Tampa Bay area," Perez said.

The Transportation Department estimates 42,000 vehicles a day will use the connector.

Tolls, ranging from 50 cents to $1, will be collected electronically from an overhead gantry at the road's midpoint.

The project also calls for separate lanes to divert trucks bound for the Port of Tampa away from historic Ybor City. Right now, most trucks exit the highway at 21st Street and enter off of 22nd Street.

For 20 years, city and state transportation officials have talked about finding ways to funnel truck traffic off Ybor streets, where the rumbling can be felt inside shops and restaurants.

About 11,000 trucks move in and out of the port daily, port spokesman Andrew Fobes said.

Casey Gonzmart, owner of the landmark Columbia Restaurant, said so many trucks cruise through Ybor that he added reinforcing steel to the 104-year-old brick structure and keeps extra columns on hand in case a truck plows into the eatery.

That's happened a dozen or so times, he says.

A few years ago, a vehicle barreled into the restaurant's northwest corner at Seventh Avenue and 21st Street. No one was hurt, but the impact damaged the building and knocked out a few of the turned, concrete columns.

"This has to be the only city in America that has this much truck traffic going through a historic district," Gonzmart said from outside the restaurant, his voice straining to be heard over the traffic. "We've been waiting for this for a long time."

Construction was supposed to start a year ago, but rising costs for roads and bridges delayed the work. Construction nearly was delayed again, but an infusion of $105 million in federal stimulus funds put it back on track.

That's encouraging to Klopp, who commutes 45 minutes each morning to her job as business manager for the Tampa Downtown Partnership.

She isn't even put off by the tolls.

She figures it will be worth the money to avoid Brandon Boulevard each morning.

"It's nothing but stoplight, stoplight, stoplight. Plus, if there's an accident, it gets so congested," she said.

"I can't wait for this."

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