TAMPA — For weary travelers, it’s been years since the southbound drive on Interstate 275 could be made without passing uncountable Bob’s Barricades and dodging earth-moving machinery chugging along shoulders and medians.
And now this.
Florida Department of Transportation officials have closed the southbound Dale Mabry Highway exit, arguably one of the most used exits along the Tampa stretch of Interstate 275. And not for just a couple of hours or a few days.
Crews blocked off the ramp at 4:22 a.m. Wednesday. It was to have been closed around 11:30 the night before, but weather got in the way. Road construction and heavy rain do not go together well.
“It took them a while before they could get all the prep work done,” said state transportation department spokesman John McShaffrey, “and that mainly involved the striping on the interstate, which couldn’t be done until the road had dried out. Our only concern was the work be done and the exit get closed by 5:30 a.m.” before the crush of morning rush hour traffic.
The closure of the southbound exit off the interstate is expected to last well into September, give or take a few days or weeks. The work is part of a $217 million ongoing four-year highway reconstruction project that has the interstate between downtown and Old Tampa Bay looking like a cratered war zone.
Drivers getting off the interstate and heading south on Dale Mabry have to do this: Exit at Himes Avenue, which is on the left side of the southbound lanes. Overhead signs on I-275 and portable message boards at the Himes exit emphasize that the Himes exit is not a normal right side ramp. From there, turn south on Himes to Cypress Street and turn right to Dale Mabry.
Backups were to be expected as a few stop lights slow traffic along the detour route, though light cycles have been tweaked to help traffic move along more smoothly, McShaffrey said.
“It’s really been better than we anticipated for the first day,” he said Wednesday. “The traffic flow has been very good on both the interstate and the Himes exit ramp and the detour route. That’s been very, very good.”
But first day traffic usually is good, he said, because people heed the traffic reports in the media and the warnings put out by the transportation department.
“We don’t get too high or too low on day one of any traffic changes,” he said. “The reason is you don’t really have things normalized out there for a week or two.”
Traffic reports aired Wednesday morning showed the flow looking pretty light, McShaffrey said.
“Then, everyone uses it the next day and it’s a mess,” he said. “It would not surprise us to have more traffic congestion along the Himes ramp and detour route as people begin to use that more.”
By mid-morning Wednesday, the line of traffic heading west on Cypress Street had to wait through several cycles of the light on Dale Mabry, said Geeta Moore, owner of Pip Printing, located on the south side of Cypress a couple of blocks east of Dale Mabry.
“It is so steady right now,” she said. “Trucks are blocking us in.’’ She said that to head south, she would have to go east to Himes, and forget about taking southbound Dale Mabry Highway. There is no way to get out into traffic, she said.
“Making a left is a big problem,” she said. Still, the flow seems to be moving, slowly, but steadily.
Passersby probably won’t stop to impulsively buy business cards or menus or posters at Pip Printing, but Moore, who has owned the shop for 25 years, is making lemonade out of the traffic mess.
“For us, we are hoping to get a different group of people noticing us,” she said. “I’m looking at this as a good thing.”
Though there is no good time to force traffic to detour from one major artery to another, the transportation department concluded summer would be the best time. Tourist season is at a lull and football games at the nearby Raymond James Stadium are months away.
The detour is part of a 4.2 mile construction zone that stretches from downtown west to the water. Crews will be able to rebuild the Dale Mabry southbound exit and build an exit for Cypress Street uninterrupted by traffic.
State transportation officials say that when the I-275 work is done in 2016, there will be four lanes in each direction, a flatter road to improve sight distance and decrease the chance of crashes, improved interchanges and a wide median to allow for future improvements. The project began in 2012.
Marcos Larralde, owner of Value Transmission on the north side of Cypress Street, said traffic was heavy Wednesday morning.
“Right now,” he said, “It’s horrible. But it always is from Dale Mabry to Himes.”
He paused to look out the window. “It’s not moving ... Wait, it’s moving now.”
Typically, traffic during rush hour is backed up on Cypress between Himes and Dale Mabry, he said shortly before noon, “but it’s heavy right now.”