The road to improvement

A USF student leaves home in Clearwater.

The drive to campus down Interstate 275 goes smoothly; there’s no more than the usual amount of traffic.

And then the student comes to Busch Boulevard, the beginning of a construction zone that stretches about five miles, and comes to a stop, stuck in bumper to bumper traffic.

Three miles away from that scene, a second student jumps in the car and proceeds down East Holly Drive to the 50th Street campus exit. But the student becomes stuck trying to turn south onto 50th Street, where the traffic is backed up a quarter of a mile from the traffic light.

Just up the road, a third student is walking home. The student is trying desperately to cross Fletcher Avenue from North Palm Drive. Two traffic lights less than 100 yards apart and a poorly marked crosswalk create a hazard, and the student is fearful stepping into the road.

Student body president Mike Griffin said these and several other USF area transportation problems prompted him to put in a call to the Hillsborough County Commissioners Office. Griffin met last week with County Commissioner Jim Norman.

“Basically, it’s something I’ve wanted to do for awhile,” Griffin said. “There’s a lot of transportation issues around the perimeter of campus.”

Griffin said much of what he told Norman was based on suggestions students have made.

“A lot of it hasn’t really been complaints, it’s more of students saying they wish this could be like that,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is address those student needs.”

Griffin said many of the student suggestions have centered around the crosswalk at Fletcher and North Palm directly across from Fontana Hall. He said asking students to cross Fletcher Avenue there is unsafe.

“I’m a pretty safe driver and I’ve come close to striking a pedestrian there,” Griffin said. “It’s one of those things where it shouldn’t take a student getting hit there or a death there to make a better crosswalk.”

Griffin said he suggested to Norman either a tunnel walkway or an overhead walkway similar to the one across Bruce B. Downs Boulevard at the VA Hospital. If those options are not realistic, Griffin said he hopes at least for a more well-defined and better lit crosswalk.

Griffin said he has also heard numerous comments about the Fletcher Avenue and 50th Street intersection. Griffin said the pavement at that location is obviously badly worn, and the right hand turn lane is short and narrow. In addition, the road has been patched several times without being repaved, and there is a severe dropoff where water has eroded the shoulder.Griffin said 50th Street is a safety hazard.

“The right of way has been driven on so much,” Griffin said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Norman said he is concerned with the issues in the area surrounding USF, and the county will take actions to improve the situation.

“I sent a referral after the meeting asking the road/street department to give a review on 50th Street and a way to better cross Fletcher Avenue,” he said. “It’s not an unreasonable request to have us come out and look at those things.”

Norman said Griffin’s concerns are not the first problems in the USF area. He said much of the trouble centers around poor drainage.

“El Nino, when we had those kinds of rains, it had no where to go,” Norman said. “We put $62 million (of pipes, etc.) into the ground in those kind of retro projects to move water better, (because) if we have those El Nino events, USF would be underwater.”

Norman said the funding will be available for the USF area. He said, depending on what needs to be accomplished, changes may take between six months and two years.

As for the lengthy construction on I-275, Griffin said he is also concerned that lane changes and temporary exit ramps could present safety issues.

“I use it all the time,” Griffin said. “I just cringe at the fact that I’m going to have to go through all the traffic to get there.”

Griffin said work on I-275 is not in Norman’s jurisdiction, belonging instead to the Florida Department of Transportation.

John McShaffrey, a spokesman for the Tampa construction office of the DOT, said the work is actually two separate projects.

“From south of Busch Boulevard to south of Fletcher Avenue, we started on Sept. 25, 1999,” McShaffrey said. “The other project, Fletcher Avenue to just north of Bearss, began May 16, 2000.”

McShaffrey said about $39 million has been spent during the three years of work. He said there have been setbacks during the lengthy construction period.

“There has been delays with a couple of different things,” McShaffrey said. “Weather has been the biggest, and we’ve added some work on the different projects.”

McShaffrey said students could expect the work to be coming to an end in late summer or early fall. But, he said, the construction is far from over. He said much of the interstate’s concrete surface needs to be replaced, and that the next step will be to rebuild the Interstate 4/I-275 interchange.

“We’re making safety and capacity improvements while we’re doing this work,” McShaffrey said. “Thirty to 40 years old, that’s pretty much past the usable life for the concrete out there.”

Griffin said he is excited students will have six new lanes of interstate on which to travel to classes this fall.

“Come end of the summer it will be (finished),” Griffin said. “We’re going to hold them to that.”