Wednesday, March 25, 2009

New Northbound Interstate 275 Lanes Coming to Tampa

A significant change is coming in a few weeks to northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa. However, what you will be driving on in a few weeks is just the tip of the iceberg as construction progresses on the section of Interstate 275 in Tampa from Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) to the Ashley Street/Tampa Street/Scott Street complex (Exit 44) in downtown Tampa.

If you have recently driven northbound Interstate 275 approaching downtown Tampa, you have probably seen the new northbound lanes take shape including the erection of all new signage on ultra-modern sign brackets much like what you see over at the Tampa International Airport interchange. If you look at a recent Bay News 9 article the picture will show you that the new northbound lanes are of concrete rather than asphalt.

The new section of northbound Interstate 275 in Tampa is scheduled to open shortly after Easter, according to the Bay News 9 article. However, as I mentioned earlier this new section of Interstate 275 northbound in Tampa is just the tip of the iceberg. Why?

This project is part of a gigantic Interstate 275 reconstruction effort which will eventually run from the Tampa International Airport/FL 60/Kennedy Blvd. exit (Exit 39) to downtown Tampa at Exit 44. What will happen after the new northbound lanes are opened is that southbound Interstate 275 traffic coming out of downtown Tampa will be shifted over to the present northbound Interstate 275 lanes while at the same time the existing southbound Interstate 275 lanes will be demolished and a newly reconstructed southbound Interstate 275 coming out of downtown Tampa will take its place.

But wait! There’s more!

From Himes Avenue westward to the Howard Frankland Bridge Interstate 275 will also be getting the major reconstruction makeover as well. If you have been by the section of northbound Interstate 275 between Westshore Blvd. (Exit 40A) and Lois Avenue (Exit 40B) you have probably seen all the land clearing going on to the right of the northbound lanes. According to the fact sheet at the Florida DOT’s Tampa Bay Interstates site the segment consisting of reconstructing both northbound and southbound Interstate 275 from the Howard Frankland Bridge to Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) is scheduled for construction around Spring 2011.

Now what will all this mean for you when it’s all said and done?

First and foremost, you will see a widened Interstate 275 from six lanes to eight lanes. This will mean more capacity especially during the morning and afternoon commutes. The original Interstate 275 from downtown Tampa to the Howard Frankland Bridge was constructed in 1962 and 1963 and it used to be known as Interstate 4 at the time as a six- and four-lane highway with the transition taking place at Dale Mabry Highway (Exits 41A/B). The original four lane segment from Dale Mabry Highway to FL 60 (Exit 39) was widened to six lanes in the mid-1970’s and the original grass median was replaced with a continuous concrete Jersey barrier wall separating northbound and southbound traffic.

Second, there will be space in the newly created median which will accommodate a future light rail or commuter rail service utilizing the center median of Interstate 275. Even with all the new improvements that are coming to Interstate 275, we still need better mass transit if the Tampa Bay metro region wants to compete with the other metro regions of Florida and throughout the southeastern United States.

Third, you will no longer have the roller coaster effect which is the case with the present segment of Interstate 275 from Howard and Armenia Avenues (Exit 42) to downtown Tampa. This makes for a better line of sight and you can know in advance when your exit is coming up along with all new signage.

As I mentioned earlier, the new northbound lanes of Interstate 275 from Himes Avenue to downtown Tampa that will be opening in a few weeks is just the tip of the iceberg. Sure there will be more construction inconveniences on the way but in the end we’ll have an Interstate 275 we can be proud of.


Monday, March 9, 2009

FREE SPEECH SILENCING ATTEMPT!

By now you have seen the article in the St. Petersburg Times on Friday, 6 March 2009 regarding how dangerous the ramp from southbound Interstate 275 to eastbound Interstate 375 is. Like I mentioned earlier, it was a well done article by St. Petersburg Times staff writer Drew Harwell.

If you haven't already seen my prior blog entry including the update, by all means click on this link. (Internet Explorer 7 users, you may want to right click and open as a new tab and that way you can read this entry and the prior entry side by side).

Now before I go on any further, in order to avoid any retribution by my employer, I am not disclosing who my employer is nor the personnel involved. However, if you are a member of any First Amendment advocacy group that would like to speak with me privately about my First Amendment rights, please contact me. Now on to the story.

While I was at work one of my higher superiors called me into the office to speak to me about my name appearing in the paper. The conversation was not of a congratulatory tone but of a tone that clearly violated my First Amendment rights. Specifically, I was told that:

1. I was not to speak with the St. Petersburg Times at all, period, on or off duty.
2. I must clear everything I speak through my superior.
3. My employer, for all aspects, practically owns me despite my explaining to the contrary.
4. I cannot practically write anything about my hometown anywhere, including my two websites, Interstate275Florida.com and EdwardRingwald.com!

Now please let me explain.

First of all, I was contacted by Drew Harwell at home. I never made any initial contact with Drew from my office. I was contacted because I had a prior blog entry on the March 2007 tanker incident which closed this very same ramp for a few weeks.

I never maintain my Interstate 275 blog or website from work. I only maintain them from home on my personal laptop computer. The same thing goes for EdwardRingwald.com or the Edward Ringwald Blog.

I am fully aware of my employer’s procedures when it comes to any contact with the news media. However, that applies whenever I am on duty and on my employer’s time. When I am off duty (as I am writing this blog entry as we speak) my employer cannot regulate my First Amendment activities when it comes to my blogs or websites. This is compared to a school principal disciplining a student over a student’s personal web page when it is done off of school time and off of school property.

What my employer did on 6 March 2009 was an attempt to silence the First Amendment rights of your Interstate275Florida.com and EdwardRingwald.com webmaster by having a meeting with me that would have led into disciplinary action. Luckily, at this point no disciplinary action was taken but I am not going to let this conversation deter me from speaking with any member of the news media, including the St. Petersburg Times, when I am off duty.

Now here’s another situation which closely borders what I experienced. Take the case of Laura Berg, who was a federal government employee.

Laura wrote an editorial in her weekly hometown newspaper in New Mexico about the Bush Administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. This would be compared to me speaking with Drew Harwell while I was not on my employer’s time.

In an attempt to silence Laura’s First Amendment rights, her employer investigated her for “an act which potentially represents sedition”, according to an ACLU report on defending First Amendment rights. By comparison, my superior was investigating me for a possible violation of my employer’s policy when in fact no violation had indeed taken place.

Now you see there is a situation that closely borders what I experienced with my employer. Again, I am not letting my employer attempt to put a muzzle on my protected First Amendment rights when it comes to The Interstate 275 Blog or Interstate275Florida.com, as well as the Edward Ringwald Blog or EdwardRingwald.com.

As an American citizen, I do not relinquish my rights upon entering any workplace, and I am free to speak to anyone I want, including the news media. As long as I do it on my own time (which I have done as mentioned earlier), that is fine.

In other words, it is business as usual here at Interstate275Florida.com as well as The Interstate 275 Florida Blog. Stay tuned.

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.