I-75 accident snarls traffic; woes will continue for several days

EAST MANATEE — Drivers who usually use the Interstate 75-University Parkway interchange should expect delays Tuesday as the area recovers from the damaged overpass that caused officials to close both major roads Monday.

By late Monday afternoon, one of three southbound lanes on I-75 had reopened after the accident, which left several holes — including two the size of manhole covers — in the overpass over University Parkway.

University Parkway, one of four major thoroughfares linking East Manatee and Lakewood Ranch with Bradenton, remained closed in both directions until repairs can be completed.

Just as traffic was beginning to unclog, the artery was dealt another blow just before 7 p.m. Monday. The Florida Highway Patrol reported a fatal crash shut down southbound Interstate 75 near mile marker 217 near State Road 70 in Manatee County — the same area where traffic had been scrambled earlier by chunks of concrete falling from the University Parkway overpass.

It reopened within the hour, according to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

If the traffic snarl that rippled Monday afternoon throughout Manatee County is an indication, the Tuesday morning commute promises to be a grind as motorists scramble to find alternate routes.

Southbound I-75 was first closed about noon Monday after a 6,000-pound pile driver fell off a truck and punched five holes into the concrete deck of the I-75 overpass. Motorists tried to dodge the rocks and dust that rained down on University Parkway until authorities arrived to redirect traffic and clear the road.

The left southbound lane of I-75 soon reopened, but University Parkway was still shut down late Monday. If repair work overnight proceeds well, one lane eastbound and one lane westbound on University Parkway will open to traffic by rush hour Tuesday morning, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

Southbound I-75 could be closed for 24 to 48 hours, as repairs are made. All lanes of northbound I-75 remain open.

The first reports of falling debris came in about 11:43 a.m. Tampa-based Soroa Freight driver Jorge Luis Abelenda, 41, was towing a trailer carrying a steel piling collar used in construction south on I-75 when the collar bounced out of the trailer, FDOT spokesman Robin Stublen said.

Abelenda reportedly told the Florida Highway Patrol he was approaching the overpass when traffic slowed for two vehicles stopped on the right shoulder. Abelenda told FHP he slowed and swerved toward the center lane to avoid colliding with other traffic. The strap holding down the heavy machinery load snapped during the lane change letting the load fall off the trailer.

FHP reported the truck driver stopped the truck in the median facing southbound. The load rolled from the center lane toward the right lane coming to rest at the base of the bridge along the right shoulder.

Officials said the structure bounced several times off the deck of the overpass before ending up near a guard rail.

Amazingly, no injuries were reported.

Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Brannon Snead said the truck driver will be cited and the company held responsible for the cost of repairs because the equipment wasn’t properly secured.

A representative of Soroa Freight declined to comment Monday.

Lisa Richardson, 48, was driving from Parrish to Sarasota when the structure bounced from the middle lane.

“All the cars were swerving. … As it came to bounce there were other pieces of concrete coming up,” she said.

“It scared the living daylights out of me.”

Stublen said I-75 cannot completely reopen until the damage is repaired.

FHP outlined three possible detours for motorists on southbound I-75:

• Exit at State Road 64.

• Exit at State Road 70.

• Exit at University Parkway, go west on University, make a U-turn and re-enter I-75.

Neighboring businesses feel brunt

Guitar Center Studios in the Cooper Creek Shopping Center off University Parkway is normally packed with students taking music lessons, many from nearby Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota County.

After the accident, many students canceled Monday.

“I’ve had two students since 10 a.m.,” said instructor Jami Gee. “I should have had eight or nine.”

“Quite a few people called our store and asked, ‘Why can’t we get off onto University Parkway?’” said Guitar Center Studios store operator Chris Atkins. “It’s definitely been a lot slower today.”

It’s impossible to know how many customers were lost by University Parkway businesses Monday, but store operators estimated it was significant.

The accident prevented customers who live east of the interstate in Lakewood Ranch and other communities from getting to stores via University Parkway, as well as Sarasota customers who use I-75.

Sean Goguen, a retail manager at Guitar Center Studios, was supposed to be at work at 1 p.m. and didn’t arrive until 2:55 p.m.

“I got off I-75 at University Parkway from Sarasota, but they wouldn’t let me cross over,” Goguen said. “They made me go back north on I-75 and I ended up getting off on State Road 70 and taking Lockwood Ridge Road and then Honore Avenue.”

Employees and their customers will all have to re-think travel routes for a day or so, said Pat Cournan, a resident of Waterleaf off State Road 64 who had to change her way home Monday from Cooper Creek Shopping Center.

“Everyone will have to reprogram their routes,” Cournan said. “I think I will try Honore Avenue. I may see some nice areas I have never seen.”

Inspection records

Both spans of the bridge were built in 1979 and last inspected Oct. 22, 2013, according to FDOT records.

The northbound span also has a health rating of 86.51 and the southbound span has a 98.74 health index. A health index below 85 shows that some repairs are needed, but doesn’t make a bridge unsafe, according to FDOT’s website.

Neither span is considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.

The northbound span has a sufficiency rating of 93.4 while the southbound span has a 92.5 sufficiency rating. The sufficiency rating helps determine whether a bridge is structurally deficient, functionally obsolete and whether the bridge should be repaired or replaced.

The southbound I-75 bridge was the site of a 47-car crash Oct. 6, 2012, injuring 52 people during a sudden rain storm, closing the bridge for about seven hours.

Mishap highlights problems

The accident Monday highlighted the importance of the University Park interchange — and what some officials say is the need for transportation improvements in the area.

FDOT officials are evaluating whether to undertake a study of the corridor anchored by the intersection, according to Manatee County Commission Chairman Larry Bustle.

“They said today the staff was still evaluating it,” Bustle said Monday after chairing a meeting of the regional transportation agency, the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which was scheduled before the accident.

“They said they would be making a decision probably by the next MPO meeting in March,” Bustle added.

Study area boundaries would range from Lakewood Ranch Boulevard west to Honore Avenue, and from 17th Street north to Linger Lodge Road.

In December, MPO members told state planners that rebuilding the I-75/University Park interchange alone would not cure severe gridlock, since adjacent streets such as Cattlemen Road are already congested and will be burdened with additional traffic in coming months.

Next fall, the new Mall at University Town Center will open, and many athletic events are scheduled in the area before Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park hosts the World Rowing Championship in 2017. The rowing championship is expected to attract tens of thousands of athletes, coaches and fans.

Bustle wants a “comprehensive look” at some affordable projects to ease traffic woes before 2017.

Private money might aid a push to try to build one or two overpasses over the interstate before 2017, Jack Rynerson told the Manatee-Sarasota Airport Authority Monday.

He noted there’s no state money for a rebuilt interchange.

However, developers might help with other improvements to counter congestion.

Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch owns all the rights-of-way from its property down to Lorraine Road/Dog Kennel Road extension, Rynerson said.

The company would pay Sarasota County $7.5 million to upgrade that road from Fruitville Road to Palmer Ranch Parkway, Rynerson said. He added the company would also have to upgrade its development of regional impact permit, which governs large-scale developments.

Another possibility would be to extend Lakewood Ranch Boulevard south, near the church by I-75 and Fruitville Road, and build an overpass over I-75 connecting, perhaps, to 17th Street, Rynerson said.

SMR also wants to extend Pope Road, with an overpass north of State Road 70, Rynerson said.

“Hopefully all of that’s going to happen in a reasonably short span of time,” he added.

Anyone who witnessed this crash is asked to contact Florida Highway Patrol crash investigator Trooper G. Monge at 941-751-7647.

– Herald staff writer Charles Schelle contributed to this story.