Morning I-75/US 441 closures reroute travelers


Traffic slowed to a crawl on Interstate 75 northbound near Ocala ahead of a detour off the interstate, which is closed at Paynes Prairie because of poor visibility.

Alan Youngblood/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 5:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2012 at 5:12 p.m.

Traffic was snarled in different areas of Marion County early Monday after two major north-south highways were again closed due to a similar smoke and fog condition blamed for a multi-vehicle pileup that killed 10 people early Sunday in Alachua County.

The road closures on Interstate 75 and U.S. 441 created a nightmare for people heading north Monday, including Marion residents trying to get to Gainesville to work, travelers trying to get home after vacation and truckers trying to deliver merchandise.

The main alternate route backups were along U.S. 441/301 north, just south of where the two roads split, and along U.S. 27 west of Interstate 75. U.S. 441 was closed at the split, but U.S. 301 was open for travel. That meant Marion County residents headed to work in Gainesville had to drive U.S. 301 to Hawthorne in Alachua County and then travel back to the west. For many, the route was at least 30 miles out of the way.

Wade Tackett, president of B&T Metal Works Inc., had just pumped gas into his pickup at the Kangaroo Express just south of the U.S. 441/301 split. He said he was concerned about the traffic and the long drive to give a work estimate. He said he understood the major highways had to be closed, but that it was a headache and would cost his business money, considering that an employee riding with him is paid by the hour.

Inside the Kangaroo, store manager Edwin Starling said there had been a steady stream of cars outside, but most people were coming in for updates, not merchandise. He said most of them were understanding, but “some of them did take their frustrations out on us. All we could do is tell them what they (law enforcement) were telling us about the closures.”

Starling said his wife, Jennie, had to leave hours early for her work at Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she works as a pharmacy technician.

Along County Road 326, many northbound travelers directed to exit I-75 were heading east to get to U.S. 441/301. The traffic was thick and steady shortly before the interstate reopened at 10:10 a.m.

Two 18-wheeler drivers parked at the Pilot Travel Center on CR 326 said they avoided the worst of the traffic by taking the detour early.

Rick Long, 49, of Jacksonville, who hauls cars for Centurion, said he received a call from his mother late Sunday night that I-75 and US 441 were closed and likely would be overnight. He said the worst feeling ever for a driver is when you suddenly drive into total white-out conditions, in this case smoke and fog. He said you must slow down to a safe speed and hope those behind you do the same. It's the drivers who continue at 70 mph who end up causing the pileups, he said.

“That's when the worst case scenario can happen,” he added.

Greg Shiltz, 47, of Ocala, washing his fuel tanker outside the business, said he drives a “bomb” if he's in accident, so he takes great care in case of total white-out conditions. He said he goes as slow as he can in the emergency lane until he finds an exit and gets off immediately.

“You don't mess around,” he said of transporting diesel and gasoline to Pilot Travel Centers from Ocala to Tampa.

Marion County School District spokesman Kevin Christian said about six school buses heading to North Marion High and North Marion Middle School were delayed by about 15 to 20 minutes because of the traffic.

Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoeOcalaNews.

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