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Florida’s main interstates and highways early Saturday were largely seeing free-flowing traffic — in sharp contrast to the past two days when thousands of residents fleeing Hurricane Irma were met with frustrating gridlock and hours of delays.
As of 9:45 a.m., only a few areas of congestion were reported: a stretch of Interstate 75 near Spring Lake in Hernando County that’s backed up because of a crash, and several miles of traffic jams east and west of Tallahassee on Interstate 10, which runs from Jacksonville west through the Panhandle.
Both of those interstates are locations state transportation officials say they are keeping a close eye on as Hurricane Irma begins affecting southern Florida and the Keys.
If you don’t need to be on the road, don’t be on the road.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott
I-75 out of southwest Florida, in particular, could see growing congestion as the day wears on, given additional evacuation orders issued for Florida’s west coast where Irma is now headed.
If you choose to evacuate today, state officials urge safety above all else. Parts of southern Florida were already getting hit by Irma’s outer bands.
“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.
Gov. Rick Scott urged west coast residents seeking to evacuate to do so no later than noon.
“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.
One of the largest traffic headaches — even on a good day — has been at the Wildwood interchange, where the Florida Turnpike ends and merges with Interstate 75.
That bottleneck cleared up by around 2 a.m. Saturday, FDOT said, and traffic was running at normal speed, as of mid-morning.
If necessary, motorists can still use the left shoulder on I-75 from the Wildwood interchange to the Georgia line. FDOT and the Florida Highway patrol began allowing that Thursday evening and all day Friday to help improve traffic flows.
Motorists opting to use the shoulder should do so only “when directed by law enforcement and highway signs” and to use caution and not exceed 40 miles per hour. Driving on the shoulder was still not allowed on any other stretch of roadway, the agencies said.
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, however, were critical of 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 road rangers have seen an uptick in vehicles running low or out of gas, because they were stuck in gridlock. The road rangers have supplied those vehicles with enough fuel so drivers can 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.
Check back for updates.
Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau.