Tampa freeway to test escape route Saturday

| 8/15/2002

Some truckers driving along I-4 Saturday from Tampa to Orlando may wonder if the DOT has undertaken some new radical roadside inspection program.

The freeway reportedly will take on the look of a war zone, complete with National Guard troops, Humvees and olive drab trucks, as part of a hurricane drill. The state is trying to figure out how long it will take to turn 63 miles of interstate from Tampa to Orlando into a one-way eastbound escape route.

Some truckers may remember when Hurricane Floyd moved up the state's east coast in 1999 and 3 million people made a "b-line" to escape the storm's wrath. The resulting gridlock spawned this unusual plan.

To test response times, about 100 soldiers, 125 state troopers and 50 to 60 state transportation department workers will take up posts along the stretch of highway on Saturday.

The unarmed soldiers, along with Humvees, trucks and other equipment, will be stationed at highway ramps, and troopers and DOT workers will share space with about 3,000 orange traffic cones stacked along the freeway shoulders.

Thirty-five lighted message boards will give drivers a heads-up on the drill as they approach the test area. Officials say travelers won't be delayed - except for the inevitable rubberneckers. No barricades will be put in place, and the freeway will remain open to normal traffic.

The plan is a last resort, to be used only before a Category 4 or 5 hurricane makes landfall. The test will start at 8 a.m. and is expected to last six to eight hours.