Last update: 4:45 p.m. Saturday.
As Hurricane Irma made her way into southern parts of Florida Saturday, state and county officials took steps to encourage drivers to get off roadways in the path of the storm.
Turnpike service plazas started to close for the duration of the hurricane, and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority issued an advisory asking drivers to stay off area expressways “until they can be confirmed clear and safe for travel.”
But Irma’s forecast path toward southwest Florida and Tampa Bay sent a fresh wave of evacuees seeking to flee by car, even as Irma’s outer bands started lashing at the lower reaches of the state.
Interstates 75 and 4 out of the region grew increasingly congested, beginning late Saturday morning.
By late afternoon, the Florida Department of Transportation opened the use of the left shoulder of a section of I-4 eastbound from 50th Street in Tampa to the Western Beltway (SR 429) in Orlando. The approved stretch of road is from Mile Marker 3 to Mile Marker 60, and it’s for cars only — not trucks, buses or trailers.
FDOT said it implemented the plan to assist the large number of motorists evacuating from the west coast. Mandatory evacuation orders were in effect for sections of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties — a metropolitan area of more than 3 million people.
Although there are heavy pockets of evacuation traffic in some areas, traffic is generally flowing on that section of I-4, FDOT said.
The state said travel on the right shoulders of highways is prohibited, and no other state roadways are currently approved for left shoulder travel.
Meanwhile, much of Florida’s other main highways — including all of Interstate 95 and the Turnpike — had free-flowing traffic throughout the day, in sharp contrast to the past two days when thousands of residents fleeing Irma were met with frustrating gridlock and hours of delays.
Traffic had diminished enough Saturday on Interstate 75 in Central Florida that around 10 a.m. the Florida Department of Transportation stopped letting drivers use the left shoulder as a travel lane north of the Wildwood interchange — where the Florida Turnpike ends and merges with I-75. (FDOT and the Florida Highway Patrol had allowed shoulder usage Thursday evening and all day Friday to help expedite traffic flows north to the Georgia line.)
The entrance to the Wildwood interchange — a usual bottleneck — got jammed again Saturday on the I-75 leg, but “evacuation routes are moving,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a noon press conference from Winter Park. He noted that officials would continue monitoring flows on I-75 and would re-open the left shoulder to traffic, if necessary.
Some reported traffic jams throughout the state by mid-afternoon were on:
▪ parts of I-75 and I-4 near Brandon and Seffner, east of Tampa;
▪ I-75 from Wesley Chapel through Spring Lake and on north through the Wildwood interchange with the Turnpike;
▪ I-75 near Ocala;
▪ I-4 near starting near U.S. 301 east through Plant City and Lakeland, and again into the Orlando metro area;
▪ U.S. 441 near The Villages and Ocala;
Both I-75 and Interstate 10 are locations state transportation officials said they would keep a close eye on Saturday as Hurricane Irma began affecting southern Florida and the Keys.
I-10, which runs from Jacksonville west through the Panhandle, had heavy congestion through Tallahassee earlier Saturday, but that appears to have cleared up by early afternoon.
If you don’t need to be on the road, don’t be on the road.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott
If you still choose to evacuate, state officials urge safety above all else.
“Drivers need to be aware of changing weather conditions,” Mike Dew, the state transportation director, told the Herald/Times. “They need to be safe. If they do make the decision to leave, make sure to pay attention to roadway conditions.”
“As tropical storm force winds approach, it’s going to start to be unsafe out there, so pay very close attention and make sure you have a plan before you leave,” he added.
With increased urgency, Gov. Rick Scott told residents who have been ordered to evacuate to do so immediately.
The state Department of Emergency Management said as many as 6.3 million Floridians were under evacuation orders, as of noon. That represents about 30 percent of the statewide population and an increase of 700,000 people from Friday night.
“If you don’t need to be on the road, don’t be on the road,” he said at a mid-morning press conference in Sarasota.
Real-time traffic conditions are available at fl511.com, run by the Florida Department of Transportation.
MDX warned motorists in South Florida that road rangers, which assist broken-down vehicles, would be pulled off the road once wind speeds reached 39 miles per hour. The free roadside service would resume “after the authority has determined it is safe for motorists to travel on the expressways,” the agency said.
One of the largest traffic headaches for evacuees has been at the Wildwood interchange in Central Florida — which sees frequent back-ups even on a good day.
That bottleneck was overloaded Thursday and Friday but had cleared up by around 2 a.m. Saturday, FDOT said. Traffic had been running at normal speeds until more vehicles got on the road by mid-morning — resuming the typical logjam via I-75.
Florida still has no plans to reverse traffic flows on major interstates — which Georgia has done on Interstate 16 from Savannah west to Dublin. Eastbound lanes of I-16 were reversed Saturday morning to “increase the capacity of the roadway to help expedite travel for those leaving Savannah,” Georgia’s Department of Transportation said in an advisory.
Scott told the Herald/Times Saturday morning that the state continues to need southbound lanes of the interstates and Turnpike to ferry supplies down to areas in Irma’s path.
“We’ve got to make sure we have the ability to get emergency vehicles. We’re trying to get fuel, we’re trying to get food, we’re trying to get water down south,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to take care of our citizens.”
Some motorists and residents, however, criticized the decision — pointing to Georgia. Louisiana, in 2005, also reversed traffic to help evacuees during Hurricane Katrina.
Scott said by opening up the I-75 shoulder north of Wildwood, having all 1,700 Florida Highway Patrol troopers on the road, and increasing the number of road rangers to help broken-down vehicles, “we’re doing everything we can to continue to move the traffic.”
“We know people are going to continue to evacuate but we’ve got to take care of trying to get emergency vehicles and all that help south, and we’ve got to try to get everybody who wants to go north out, so we’re doing everything we can,” he said.
Motorists looking for places to gas up while evacuating can check GasBuddy, which offers a tracker on which gas stations have fuel. All service plazas on the Turnpike have fuel, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
FDOT said its road rangers have seen an uptick in vehicles running low or out of gas, because they were stuck in gridlock while evacuating Irma. The road rangers supplied such vehicles with enough fuel so drivers could make it to the next available gas station, officials said.
Residents concerned about not being able to evacuate because of “fuel issues” can call the state transportation hotline at 1-800-955-5504.
If your vehicle dies on the road and has to be pulled off to the shoulder, do not leave it. Thursday morning, Florida Highway Patrol began towing cars left disabled or abandoned. Call *FHP if you need help.
Clark and Bousquet reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.