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Full Circle: When Tampa Bay traffic could return to 'normal'

Posted at 5:44 AM, Nov 23, 2020

It’s no secret that traffic in Tampa Bay hasn’t been the same since the pandemic hit the Sunshine State. The daily bumper to bumper gridlock drivers were accustomed to seeing during the morning and evening commute doesn’t consistently happen anymore.

Commuters, like Jim Craig, have noticed it firsthand on their drive to work and back.

“It went from 25 to 30 minutes on average to 14 to 16 minutes on average,” said Craig.

But, since the change in traffic volume, Craig says he’s seen more people behaving recklessly on the road.

Florida Highway Patrol calls traffic trends ‘unprecedented’

The Florida Highway Patrol has noticed an increase in drivers using the open road as an excuse to speed.

Data from FHP shows a 77% increase in Troop C for citations given out for going over 100 miles per hour when comparing the first 10 months of 2019 and 2020. Troop C consists of Sumter, Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco and Pinellas County.

“Even though the highways have emptied out to a certain extent, it doesn’t make the roadways a racetrack,” said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, FHP Troop C Public Affairs Officer.

In October, two drivers were arrested for going 108 mph and 117 mph while going over the Sunshine Skyway.

Trooper Steven James, who patrols the bridges looking for speeders, says that kind of behavior isn’t unusual.

He says he clocks drivers almost every day going over 100 mph and has heard nearly every excuse in the book, but none are acceptable.

“There is no need to do 100, 125, 135 because one, you’re not gonna make whatever you’re trying to make, and two, you’re gonna come across me because I’m always watching,” said James.

Meanwhile, Troop C has recorded a 22% year over year decrease in crashes. Gaskins attributes that to simply having fewer drivers on the road.

“This sustained period of traffic volume reduction is something that we’re all adjusting to,” he said.

Fewer drivers means less money for some agencies

The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, which relies entirely on toll revenue, is also getting used to this new normal.

THEA owns and operates the Selmon Expressway in Tampa. Before the pandemic, the toll road averaged about 115,000 vehicles every day.

Joe Waggoner, THEA’s CEO, says the daily average has dropped by about 20%. But, that’s up from April when traffic was down by about 55%.

Waggoner says the toll agency has lost millions of dollars in revenue, but future projects are not being impacted.

“Right now, we plan on the economy recovering in the next one to two years,” said Waggoner. “If that happens, not a single thing we’re doing is going to slip.”

In the meantime, he says THEA is continuing to invest is and speeding up work on current projects, like the South Selmon Safety Project, which is set to wrap up in the coming weeks.

“We gave crews a lot more time to close lanes to close during daytime periods, which we would not have been able to do otherwise,” he said.

The Florida Department of Transportation also accelerated projects around the state and in the Tampa Bay area. Operational improvements in the West Shore area finished early. And, the massive Howard Frankland Bridge project is expected to be sped up by four weeks, according to DOT officials.

“Nobody wants a pandemic, but it’s a good thing for air quality”

In the spring, the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County started receiving calls from residents who said they noticed improvements in air quality.

“We started looking at our data and our data really showed that there had been a drop,” said Sterlin Woodard, Director of Air Programs at the Hillsborough County EPC.

Woodard points to readings from ozone monitors throughout the county that showed a 5% drop in April when comparing 2020 to 2019.

Data also shows a 30 to 40% drop from January to September in nitrogen dioxide levels, which form, in part, from vehicle emissions.

While Hillsborough County was in compliance with Environmental Protection Agency standards before the pandemic, Woodard says any additional drops are welcome.

“Nobody wants a pandemic, but it’s a good thing for air quality,” said said.

When could traffic return to pre-pandemic levels?

Dr. Pei-Sung Lin, program director at USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, studied data that shows traffic is, on average, five to 10% below pre-pandemic levels.

That’s up from a reduction of about 50 to 70% in April.

“This is a phenomena we haven’t seen before,” he said.

He predicts traffic will return to near pre-pandemic levels once a vaccine is widely distributed.

“By that time, I can see volume gradually coming back.”

Until then, commuters like Craig, will continue to enjoy an easier ride to and from work.