Tampa Bay’s new transit goal: Dedicated BRT lanes from St. Pete to USF Tampa

A Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority bus makes a stop on its bus rapid transit line, one of the highest rated in the country. Tampa Bay leaders are hoping to bring a BRT system to the area in the next five years. (Courtesy of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority)
A Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority bus makes a stop on its bus rapid transit line, one of the highest rated in the country. Tampa Bay leaders are hoping to bring a BRT system to the area in the next five years. (Courtesy of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority)
Published March 28
Updated March 28

Tampa Bay's transit advocates have set an ambitious new goal: full, dedicated lanes for a bus rapid transit line connecting three counties.

That's a step up from the previously announced plan to build a 41-mile BRT route along Interstate 275 connecting Wesley Chapel, Tampa and St. Petersburg.

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In that version of the plan, the buses used several lane options, depending on the segment of the route. For some portions, the buses would have their own lanes, either on the shoulder of Interstate 275 or in the expanded median between Westshore and downtown Tampa. In other segments, they'd run in mixed traffic, whether in the managed toll lanes of the future or even with regular interstate traffic.

But now the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority has a bolder vision. Chairman Jim Holton told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Wednesday that his group will now push for the buses to run in dedicated lanes — whether along the shoulders or median of I-275 — from Pinellas to Hillsborough counties.

Jim Holton is chair of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.

That means rapid buses wouldn't have to share Tampa Bay Next's managed toll lanes with cars. Instead, there would be 31-miles of dedicated BRT lanes running from downtown St. Petersburg, across the Howard Frankland Bridge, through Tampa and north to the University of South Florida.

BRT would be completely separated from the usual I-275 traffic, perhaps allowing the buses to run even faster.

"If we could make the shoulder a totally dedicated  lane, exclusively for transit … I would prefer to do that." Holton said.

If the bay area chooses to build a BRT system, Holton said, then "I have one fundamental role …  to make sure it's real BRT. That's what I'm dedicated to doing."

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The final plan is still being developed. A team from Jacobs Engineering, which in January proposed BRT as the region's most realistic transit option, will spend the next six months making presentations to the public and gathering feedback. They're scheduled to deliver the completed plan in September.

Holton expects the firm will know by June whether or not the proposal will include exclusive BRT lanes running across the Howard Frankland Bridge. In the old plan, rapid buses would have shared the new toll lanes set to be added when the Howard Frankland is remade into an 8-lane bridge by 2024.

Officials previously said the BRT line would cost about $455 million to build.

That cost would rise with the additional dedicated lanes, though Jacobs officials could not say by how much.

The original BRT plan proposed 21 stops along three counties with the routes averaging a 15-minute frequency during peak hours. BRT lines in other cities tend to be much shorter and run far more frequently.

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Representatives from TBARTA and Jacobs told the Times they are looking to increase frequency of stops from every 15 minutes to every 10. Doing so would have a substantial impact on the ridership, Jacobs executive Scott Pringle said, potentially raising it from a projected 3.3 million annually to 5 million.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

A map of the proposed bus rapid transit system for the Tampa Bay region. [Times]
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