Interstate 75 lanes reopen at University Parkway

UNIVERSITY PARK — Roads reopened at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday little more than one day after damage to the overpass at Interstate 75 and University Parkway caused a major commuting headache in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Work progressed so quickly on the damaged stretch of highway that all lanes reopened a day earlier than Florida Department of Transportation officials planned.

At 6:10 p.m., cars were zooming across the overpass with no backups in sight.

But earlier in the day at 8 a.m., it was a different scene. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace with cars backed up all the way north of the State Road 70 interchange in Manatee as only one of three southbound lanes was open.

Throughout the day, traffic flowed smoothly east and west on University Parkway, which had been closed a day earlier by a heavy equipment mishap that pounded several holes in the overpass and sent debris fall

ing onto the roadway below.

FDOT contractors spent Tuesday pouring concrete into gaping holes left by a 6,000-pound pile driver that fell off a truck on the overpass around noon Monday to cause the shutdown.

Work was “progressing well,” said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kenn Watson on Tuesday afternoon. “Cautiously optimistic is the word of the day around here.”

Surrounding roadways, such as Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, experienced slightly heavier traffic volume than normal during the morning rush Tuesday.

Cars slowly started to file into The Shoppes at University Town Center on Cooper Creek Boulevard, just next to the overpass, around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“The parking lot was pretty empty all day (Monday),” said Dennis Holly, owner of John Dough Bakery Cafe. “(The interstate shutdown) definitely affected everybody.”

Holly said he hoped business would pick up later Tuesday. He wanted customers to know University Parkway and the interstate were open. Officials originally said the shutdown could last 48 hours.

“I think if people think it’s still blocked off, the public will stay away,” Holly said.

One woman in line at the bakery asked if I-75 was open.

“Is the road behind Target open?” she asked. “Then that’s what I’m taking!”

Business at Gigi’s Cupcakes in the shopping center was also slower than normal Tuesday.

“It definitely has affected business, especially being so close to our plaza and so close to our store,” said Manager Blair Greene. “We definitely are feeling a bit of an impact here.”

But Jean Boggs, a receptionist at the newly opened Bayside Pet Spa off of University Parkway, said traffic seemed normal Tuesday afternoon.

“There is, of course, more congestion,” she said. “We’re seeing business as usual.”

An emergency contractor working for the FDOT repaired nine holes in the concrete bridge deck Tuesday. The pile driver that made the holes fell off a flatbed tractor trailer owned by Tampa-based Soroa Freight. According to the Florida Highway Patrol, the driver was 41-year-old Jorge Luis Abelenda. Charges are pending.

Robin Stublen, a communications specialist with FDOT, said its contractor, ACI, will “seek payment from a third party,” and not from the state. ACI and Fort Myers-based Zep Construction did the repair work.

Stublen said Zep workers cut loose concrete out of holes in the top and bottom of the bridge deck, cleaned them, then refilled the holes with high-strength, quick-set concrete.

Stublen said ironwork inside the steel-reinforced bridge did not require repair.

“Everything held up pretty well,” he said.

FHP has yet to officially determine what caused the accident. A strap holding the pile driver onto the truck broke as he changed lanes to avoid an accident, Abelenda reportedly told FHP.

Patrol spokesman Lt. Greg Bueno said FHP’s commercial motor vehicle section is doing the investigation. Patrol personnel have inspected the truck. An formal crash report will be issued within 10 days.

According to state records, Soroa Freight has been in business since May 2012. When contacted about the accident Monday, a company representative refused to comment.

– Herald reporters Sabrina Rocco and Matt M. Johnson contributed to this report.