YBOR CITY — Diners and employees at the Columbia Restaurant were accustomed to the rumble of dump trucks and fuel tankers coming to and from Port Tampa Bay.
People could feel the vibrations and hear groaning brakes from inside the restaurant, said Casey Gonzmart, one of its owners, who used to watch the trucks whiz by from his second-floor office overlooking 21st Street.
When the Interstate 4-Selmon Expressway Connector opened on Jan. 6, he said, he saw an immediate change in the traffic along 21st and 22nd streets.
“It's really noticeable,” Gonzmart said. “It's far and above improved from what it was.”
Almost four months after it opened, officials estimate about 24,000 vehicles use the 1-mile toll road every day, and about 1,900 of those vehicles are trucks.
“The [numbers] are going up and down a little bit, but so far they're meeting or exceeding expectations,” said John McShaffrey, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Transportation.
The idea for the connector was conceived more than 30 years ago, and the road cost $421 million to design and build. The elevated road provides access between the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the east-west stretch of I-4 that cuts through Ybor City.
It was the first step in a plan to improve 21st and 22nd streets, which previously were the quickest routes for trucks traveling between the port and I-4.
This fall, the state will begin repairing and enhancing the two one-way roads between Adamo Drive and Hillsborough Avenue, narrowing them and adding more on-street parking spaces, landscaping, benches, a bicycle path and other aesthetic improvements. The work will take about two years to complete. Then the Department of Transportation, which now oversees 21st and 22nd, will transfer management of the roads to the city of Tampa.
When that happens, city officials will be able to ban truck traffic there altogether, said Vince Pardo, manager of the Ybor City Development Corporation.
“None of this could begin until the trucks had another alternative to get down to the port,” he said.
Since the connector opened, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of trucks using 21st and 22nd through Ybor City, Pardo said. When construction on the roads begins, he said, he expects to see even fewer trucks, probably because the drivers will want to avoid stop-and-go traffic.
The new connector does more than help Ybor City. Port Tampa Bay now markets its easier access to I-4, and safety officials welcomed a new connection on evacuation routes.
Phillip Skiffington recently moved to South Tampa from Seffner, and earlier this year he routinely took the Selmon Expressway and the connector to I-4 on his way to and from his job in the Westshore Business District. He still uses it when he visits family in Seffner or goes to the University of South Florida area.
It helps him avoid traffic at the junction of interstates 275 and 4, and also traffic in Brandon if he takes the Selmon Expressway all the way to Interstate 75. The new connector also was convenient when driving from Seffner to Tampa Bay Rays games in St. Petersburg, he said.
“I think it's very good and very easy to use,” Skiffington said. “It usually saves me time.”
Truckers driving in and out of the port have mixed reactions to the new road, said Port Tampa Bay spokesman Andy Fobes. Some say it is not as convenient as was promised, but others say it is a quicker route to the interstate.
Port officials have noticed the route seems faster for truck drivers, and there is less traffic on Ybor City streets. “It's a great thing and we also feel it will become better used as time goes by,” Fobes wrote in an email.
Gonzmart said the connector benefits everybody. And he agrees the traffic in Ybor City will continue to improve.
“I think it's good for the port, it's good for the historic district and it's good for the people who visit Tampa and Ybor City,” he said. “We're very happy.”