LAKELAND — Parts of Interstate 4 eastbound past the Alexander Street exit to Park Road became more of a parking lot than a thoroughfare Tuesday, as thousands of people headed into Plant City to supplement their refrigerators and cupboards.
Local law enforcement and city officials are working to avoid having similar major traffic hold-ups, snarls and gridlock when the Food for Florida (FFF) Disaster Food Assistance Program comes Lakeland's Sikes Hall in the RP Funding Center from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 14 to 18.
Food for Florida is a Department of Children and Families (DCF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture program developed to help individuals and families impacted by Hurricane Irma. DCF will provide or mail Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to those eligible for assistance to be used at authorized USDA food retailers.
Plant City officials said by 10 a.m. Tuesday, I-4 was jammed with traffic exiting south at Park Road with motorists heading to Plant City Stadium, 1810 E. Park Road, where the FFF program was held. The majority of side roads were also packed with cars making their ways to the event.
“The biggest thing we found was people coming from out of Hillsborough County using their phones or GPS and I-4 was the most direct route. That was a big issue. Logistically, our city isn’t equipped to handle that volume of traffic,” said Sgt. Al Van Duyne, Plant City Police Department public information officer.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said the public needs to be aware early there will be very heavy congestion exiting the interstate and heading south on Kathleen Road. He suggested drivers leave early and consider taking alternate routes such as State Road 60, State Road 39 or Turkey Creek Road.
“Motorists may wish to seek other east-west routes to get there and vice-versa as they’re going home,” he said.
Sgt. Gary Gross, Lakeland Police Department spokesman, said LPD will add additional officers and supervisors to traffic posts across the city. In addition, some road traffic may be redirected to assist traffic flow, such as making Lime Street one way westbound starting at Sikes Boulevard to Lake Beulah to allow for more vehicles into the RP Funding Center lots. Posting event-only traffic and road-closed signs will be set up during the run of the event.
Gross said the need to have two to three lighted variable message boards on Kathleen Road and Harden Boulevard beginning Friday has been discussed. City Traffic Operations will also put traffic lights near the RP Funding Center in free mode to assist in moving automobiles.
“We’re certainly asking people for their patience and to try to avoid Kathleen Road and Harden Boulevard. We will have additional officers and supervisors to work during the whole four days,” he said.
According to the city of Lakeland, the entrance to the event will be through Entrance 1 on Lime Street; all other building entrances will be closed.
Jason Refermat, RP Funding Center director of marketing, said traffic flow will be constantly monitored.
“City departments are working diligently to make this event flow smoothly for the citizens of the city of Lakeland and Polk County. Please check our website and social media sites for the most up-to-date information on the event,” he said.
The following items are not permitted into the RP Funding Center: backpacks, large bags, outside food and beverage, weapons, umbrellas. All people and bags will be subject to search.
For information, see www.myflfamilies.com/disaster.
Paul Catala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7533. He can be reached at Twitter @pcat0226.