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I-75 navigation woes ease in Fla.

About $80 worth of merchandise.

That was all Aerosoles shoe store at the Prime Outlets mall in Ellenton, Fla., sold on Saturday, according to Tacarra Thomas, the store's assistant manager.

"Saturday was really, really slow," Thomas said, as she helped a customer with their purchase Tuesday. "But this morning there has been a lot more people than we've actually had the entire week."

With the temporary southbound lanes open on Interstate 75 following last week's fiery tanker explosion, merchants at the Prime Outlets are seeing a growing number of customers returning to the mall, ready to shop.

"I think people are getting the message that we are accessible," Thomas said.

Customers have begun testing the traffic on the interstate and are slowly realizing that the outlet mall is surprisingly accessible despite the extensive bridge repair, said Sarah Ozgun, marketing manager for the mall.

"Traffic has definitely picked back up," Ozgun said. "Now our customers that are coming from the north, they have complete access getting off the exit and getting back on. It is very easy."

For shoppers driving from south of the Ellenton exit, motorists can get to the mall because access to U.S. 301 from the interstate is open.

"The only problem is when people are headed home using the southbound I-75 from U.S. 301," Ozgun said, explaining drivers on U.S. 301 cannot access southbound I-75. "The Florida Department of Transportation is saying that southbound access to I-75 is going to be shut down for the whole six weeks of the construction. So we have provided our customers with two alternative routes."

The stores at the outlet mall are passing out flyers that give customers headed south easy directions home. The flyers advise shoppers wanting to drive south toward Sarasota to take I-75 north up to the next exit, which is Moccasin Willow Road, and use that road to access southbound I-75. Or motorists can follow FDOT's proposal and take U.S. 301 south to U.S. 41 south. Drivers are then advised to take S.R. 64 east to southbound I-75.

Ozgun said she has tried out out both routes and neither one caused significant delays.

"If there is any delay, it is very minimal," she said. "We went out yesterday and we drove in every direction that we could test to see if we would get caught up in traffic and sure, we slowed down a bit, but there was no more delay than about five minutes."

Staff at Banana Republic at the outlet mall said they had not seen a decline in business and that the volume of traffic through the store was "normal" for this time of year.

But Irma Adan, an employee of Perfumania at the mall, said she believes they're getting fewer shoppers this week.

"It has been very slow," Adan said. "I definitely think it is because of all the roadwork on the interstate. But this weekend it was kind of fair."

As more and more motorists realize that two I-75 lanes are open for southbound traffic, Ozgun said, traffic to the mall should be completely back to normal.

"We expected that it would take a little time to get back to normal because there was a lot of attention drawn to the fact that the whole area was shut down last week, which needed to be done at the time," Ozgun said. "Now we want people to know that FDOT has got it open and we are easily accessible."

FDOT closed one lane of the southbound I-75 median crossover north of the Manatee River at the Ellenton exit Tuesday evening to install guardrails, but the lane is expected to be reopened at 5 a.m. today.

Traffic will resume on the two southbound lanes and two northbound lanes on I-75 for the morning commute.

One lane in each direction of U.S. 301 remains open, including the two-lane service road that goes under I-75 adjacent to U.S. 301.

Variable message boards are being used to advise motorists of any lane changes during reconstruction of the bridge, which is expected to take about six weeks.

FDOT will be using $1.7 million from the statewide bridge repair fund for the construction work, but the contractor is expected to seek third-party reimbursement from the insurance company of the party found at fault for the wreck by the Florida Highway Patrol, according to Debbie Tower, a FDOT spokeswoman.

Zep Construction, the low bidder for the construction work, poured concrete for the three-pier columns in the U.S. 301 median Monday night. Pressure cleaning of the smoke-stained concrete continued Tuesday, while crews also worked to clean up the accident site, performed backfilling excavations in the median and stockpiled contaminated material for disposal.

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