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Officials study remedies for I-75 congestion - made worse by UF, FSU game days

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Published:   |   Updated: August 30, 2013 at 02:19 PM

TAMPA — Cynthia Holloway and her husband Todd Alley planned to leave Tampa five hours before the kickoff of the Florida Gators season football opener Saturday to tailgate at The Swamp and beat the Interstate 75 traffic.

If Florida State University were also playing at home in Tallahassee, interstate traffic would be really bad, Holloway said.

“And when Florida plays FSU in Gainesville, traffic is intolerable,” she said. “We don't go up I-75. We go up the Suncoast Parkway through Homosassa and across. It's a little long but it works well.”

While Holloway and her family plan for game-day congestion, state highway officials are searching for year-round remedies for ever-increasing traffic between Tampa and the Georgia state line. They predict, for example, I-75 will need 16 lanes through Gainesville by 2035.

“But we can't do that,” said Bob Romig, FDOT's state transportation development administrator. Instead Romig and others are trying a new perspective to address the state's travel options.

That involves planning for geographical corridors and considering some alternatives to driving rather than simply focusing on highway expansion projects that don't keep pace with growth.

FDOT's Future Corridors Initiative includes study areas between Tampa Bay and Northeast and Central Florida, with an outlook toward growth projected by 2060.

I-75 is the key element northbound from Tampa today, and doubtlessly into the future.

Completing six projects in Pasco, Hernando and Sumter counties with contracts let in 2014 and 2015 will give the state a continuous six-lane highway from the Georgia state line to the Tampa Bay region, where some portions of I-75 are eight lanes. Coupled with advances in projects in Sarasota and Charlotte counties, I-75 will become a six-lane highway all the way to Naples, where the interstate heads east to Hialeah.

Potential improvements include truck only lanes; managed lanes that charge tolls to cars bypassing slower moving vehicles on regular I-75 lanes; extensions to the Suncoast Parkway, Florida's Turnpike and an I-75 reliever from the Suncoast Parkway to the Gainesville/Ocala areas; and improved connections between I-75 and Jacksonville.

In addition, FDOT is studying parallel freight rail corridors, passenger rail services, intra-regional bus services, carpools and van pools along with adding capacity to I-75 with more interchanges and lanes, although each option has benefits and drawbacks.

FDOT's looking at whether rail freight can replace some truck shipments.

“We are in regular communication with FDOT as the agency explores transportation options,” CSX spokesman Gary Sease said.

“CSX's expanded S line (from Jacksonville through Ocala to Plant City and Lakeland and an intermodal terminal under construction at Winter Haven) will provide opportunities to convert long-distance freight from highways to the railroad.”

Rail offers an environmentally friendly and fuel-saving alternative to truck travel and funding for highway improvements, which generally depend on state and federal sources.

“While these traditional funding sources struggle during this present economic climate, funding for the development of alternative options along the I-75 corridor will be a challenge and may require alternatives to general revenue from user fees to help support operating and maintenance costs,” FDOT's I-75 Transportation Alternatives Study states.

Population growth, construction costs, traffic volumes, accident rates and an exceptionally heavy truck volume are key factors in planning I-75 improvements, FDOT reported.

* More than 5.2 million people and 2.2 million jobs are located within FDOT's 19-county study area between Tampa and Jacksonville, figures that do not include visitor generated traffic.

If recent trends continue, the region's population could expand by more than 80 percent by 2060, with four of five new residents locating in the Tampa Bay area or near Jacksonville.

* Construction costs to widen an interstate from six to eight lanes jumped from $2.9 million a mile for urban sections in 2000 to about $7.8 million by 2009, FDOT's I-75 Sketch Interstate Plan Summary Report stated. Costs of similar rural interstate widening increased from $2.5 million a mile to $4.5 million a mile.

* Current traffic volumes range from about 127,500 vehicles per day north of Interstate 4 at Tampa to 75,100 vehicles per day near Ocala to 35,000 vehicles per day in Hamilton County.

FDOT projects 2035 traffic volumes to increase significantly, with the largest increase in Pasco County north of County Road 41 from 34,500 vehicles per day in 2011 to 75,000 vehicles a day in 2035. A Hillsborough County I-75 stretch north of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard is expected to increase by more than 66,000 vehicles between 2011 and 2035.

* I-75 crash rates near Gainesville and between Ocala and Wildwood are as high as those along the Interstates in the state's largest urban areas, reflecting the mix of cars and trucks and local and long-distance travel, an April FDOT report stated. Some segments exceeded a rate of 50 crashes per mile over the five year period between 2006 and 2010.

* Truck traffic of 20 percent to 40 percent on I-75 is significantly higher than most interstates, which average about 15 percent trucks. Trucks can account for 60 percent of the vehicles at some points on I-75 during peak periods.

Jim Kimbrough, vice chairman of SunTrust's Tampa Bay region which encompasses five counties and parts of a sixth, is a former Florida Transportation Commission member and current board member of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Commission well versed in transportation dynamics and the state's business and economic development prospects.

“As long as the sun keeps shining and the tax benefits exist for living in Florida, people will continue to come here,” Kimbrough said. “But people have moved in so fast over the past 30 years, the infrastructure and roads have not been able to keep pace with population growth.

“And people who have moved here have not been willing to be taxed in one shape or form to pay for more roads, with the obvious net result of all this new congestion.”

Kimbrough said the state needs a north-south alternative to I-75.

“One possibility is the under-utilized portion of U.S. 19 south to Crystal River, which could accommodate toll lanes in the broad medians the state owns, “ he said. “That could provide an improved connection to the Suncoast Parkway 2 Expressway extension from Hernando County through Citrus County.”

Kimbrough also endorses widening a 15-mile stretch of State Road 50 from Ridge Manor to Mascotte into four lanes, providing an additional link from west central Florida — including Tampa — to the Orlando area and beyond.

For those who only occasionally use I-75, good planning can be helpful, although an accident can tie traffic up for hours.

“I don't know what it's like 30 minutes before kickoff, because we go a little earlier,” said north Tampa resident Caryn McDermott, a Gators season ticket holder who will take I-75 to the Gainesville football game with her husband Patrick.

“It was a lot worse in the Tim Tebow years ... when the games were selling out. You could count on a lot of traffic and if there was an accident, you're sitting there like a parking lot.”

Tribune reporter Yvette C. Hammett contributed to this report.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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