Cones were removed just before 5 a.m., and all lanes on northbound Interstate 275 near downtown Tampa are now open after construction that caused headaches Saturday night for thousands of Tampa Bay Rays fans that was still backing up traffic Monday afternoon.
According to the Florida Department of Transportation, two lanes were closed overnight between West Shore Boulevard and Lois Avenue for asphalt repairs, and no further closures are expected.
The problems Saturday arose when northbound traffic was switched to the southbound bridge over Westshore Boulevard so contractors could work on the northbound lanes. The switch-over is part of the $215.4 million widening project from State Road 60 east to the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa.
The rerouting work was not completed until Sunday afternoon. Then Sunday night, deteriorating asphalt caused the lanes to be closed again until nearly 7 a.m. Monday. More asphalt problems caused the lanes to again be shut down at 1 p.m. Monday and early in the evening, with crews working overnight.
The Saturday night traffic jam ignited lively conversations on sports talk radio and prompted an apology from Rays' president Matt Silverman, who blamed the Florida Department of Transportation. Silverman, in a pre-game television interview Sunday, quipped that it took an hour and a half for team manager Joe Maddon to get to his Tampa home.
The highway department was aware the Rays were playing Saturday night, said spokesman John McShaffrey, but delaying the work to another weekend would have put the project behind schedule.
More than 30,000 people attended the game, including 11,000 students, parents and employees from the Hillsborough County school system, which was being honored by the Rays.
“In hindsight it probably would have been better to wait for another day,” McShaffrey said, “but we would have been looking at another week.”
The switchover lengthened the normal 40- to 45-minute commute from St. Petersburg to Tampa to 90 minutes or longer, according to people who were caught in the congestion. Tampa resident Phil Compton said he and his wife, Liz, waited after the game until 11 p.m. in hopes of missing the worst traffic.
“It was clear sailing until we got past the last exit before the bridge,” Compton said. “It was two hours before we got through the construction zone. It was not fun.”
McShaffrey acknowledged that the delays caused friction with the Rays management. He and the team's vice president of operations and facilities, Rick Nafe, traded emails Sunday discussing how traffic jams might be avoided in the future.
“We continue to look at these big dates,” McShaffrey said. “It's not an assurance we're not going to do anymore weekend closures, but that we will look at trying to schedule around them whenever possible.”
Rays' spokesman Rick Vaughn would not comment but issued the following statement: “We have spoken with representatives of FDOT and they assured us that this was an anomaly and that in the future they will do their best to work around our home schedule.”
Contractors in charge of the I-275 widening knew the switch-over was going to be involved and asked the transportation department to extend the normal 10 p.m.-to-5:30 a.m. work hours to 9 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“When they got into all that work, it actually entailed more than they anticipated,” McShaffrey said. “They needed more asphalt, and it took more trucks getting in there. It turned into Sunday afternoon about 3 when they got all the lanes open.”
About two hours later, workers noticed temporary asphalt was deteriorating in the right lane and shoulder of the transition zone east of Westshore Boulevard. McShaffrey said the temporary asphalt is supposed to last a couple of months, but big patches were coming apart.
“It continued to be a problem,” he said. “They had to remove a lot of temporary asphalt they put in and replace it. The timing to do all that work took them from 5:15 p.m. until almost 7 a.m. this morning.”
But the problem still wasn't solved. About 1 p.m., the right lane had to be closed again because of potholes. At 3:30 the lane was reopened, but the transportation department sent out an alert saying more closures were expected overnight. At about 7:15 p.m., DOT officials said one or two lanes between Westshore and Lois Avenue would be closed for most of the night.
Compton, who is a field organizer for the Sierra Club, said the Saturday night traffic jam should awaken Pinellas and Hillsborough county residents to the need for mass transit.
“How many decades have we been trying to make 275 functional, and how many decades will it be before 275 is functional?” Compton said. “The answer is it's never going to work. Everybody stuck in this horrible situation understands there's got to be a better way.”