TAMPA — Days before the new Interstate 4-Lee Roy Selmon Expressway Connector tollway opens to motorists, about 1,000 runners christened the elevated road Saturday with a celebratory 5K run.
For the first time, spectators were allowed to get a up-close look at the $425 million road project designed to provide relief to Ybor City streets clogged with trucks serving the Port of Tampa.
They had a chance to enjoy a view of the downtown Tampa skyline that only had been seen by construction workers who built the connector road scheduled to open by the end of next week.
“This was a chance of a lifetime,” said runner Brian Coleman of Carrollwood. “They built it up as a once-in-a-lifetime race.”
The Port of Tampa and the Florida Department of Transportation sponsored the Run the Connector 5K. The course, from 20th Street to Interstate 4 and back, offered runners the new perspective on downtown as well as sweeping views of McKay Bay, Palmetto Beach and the roadway's toll facilities.
Coleman, who is a pharmacy buyer for Florida Hospital Tampa, sprinted across a portion of the toll road, carrying a camera and an American flag tucked in a backpack on his back.
“I was in a competitive mode, but I took my camera and I was taking pictures along the way,” Coleman said, adding he completed the run in 25 minutes and 30 seconds.
It also will be a lasting memory for Chris Hough of St. Petersburg, who finished first at just over 17 minutes.
“It's pretty cool” to finish first, but it wasn't easy, Hough said. “It was fun, hilly and windy. There is nothing like that in the area to train on.”
The new connector, which links I-4 and the Selmon Expressway, consists of a series of new north-south elevated toll ramps to and from the interstate, the expressway and 20th Street east of downtown Tampa.
The road will provide direct truck-only access to the port while improving safety and congestion by significantly reducing truck traffic on city streets, particularly in Ybor City, said Greg Nadeau, the federal highway deputy administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the run.
“With less truck traffic in the community, both residents and commercial drivers will get where they're going more efficiently,” he said.
The road project was funded partly by President Barack Obama's federal transportation funding project, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Proceeds from the 5K run will benefit the Palmetto Beach Community Association, Support Our Troops, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and United Way.
Dianne Worrell, 63, of Temple Terrace, and Zenita Keys, 39, of Carrollwood, said they were motivated in part to participate because Worrell's son, Robert, is on military duty in Iraq, and Keys' father and half-brother are retired military personnel.
Perhaps Robert Conroy of Riverview summed up the thoughts of many who participated in the recreational run: “I just wanted to be a part of history,” he said.