The state is inching closer to building a new Howard Frankland Bridge — but the project seems to be moving forward without an exclusive lane for a three-county bus rapid transit system.
The proposed 41-mile BRT line that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa, the University of South Florida and Pasco County has generated much discussion in the past year. A key selling point: passengers can bypass heavy traffic by coasting down their own lane, whether a lane dedicated to rapid buses or a hardened shoulder of the highway.
But that solution isn’t part of DOT’s vision for the new bridge. A draft request for proposals to design and build the new bridge says it will have eight lanes of traffic — including two toll lanes in each direction — and a bike and pedestrian trail. But there’s nothing set aside for BRT.
The problem is that the state is ready to start building the bridge while BRT is still just a concept. The three-county system is years away from vetting, approval and funding, should leaders decide to build it at all.
Meanwhile, the final version of the Howard Frankland RFP will be advertised on Dec. 10. As of now, it does not include any way to accommodate BRT outside of the toll lanes.
"There is room for flexibility for changes," DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
Yet, that change is unlikely to result in an added lane for transit.
At first, state officials intended to build just one express toll lane in each direction, but added a second amid concerns about hurricane evacuation routes, emergency vehicle access and the future adoption of driverless cars.
"Since we are providing additional express lane capacity, we are confident this will provide transit vehicles a reliable travel time and that an additional lane (for buses) would neither be needed or a responsible use of available funding," Carson said.
Typically once an RFP is issued, contractors have some flexibility in designing the project, but only to make small changes, said Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton. In his experience, he said major adjustments — such as changing the number of lanes, or how they’re used — are typically off the table once the RFP is issued.
He believes the changes that Carson pointed to usually refer to cost and time savings, or smaller alterations, such as building a 15-foot bike path instead of a 12-foot path.
"It really does to me, in my mind, say if BRT gets done at all, it will be operating in the managed toll lanes," Blanton said. "As a transit advocate, it makes a ton of sense to me ... I’m not at all worried about that."
But BRT supporters believe that transit option works best when the buses have their own, dedicated lane — especially when crossing the bridge. Otherwise BRT riders will be at risk of getting stuck on the Howard Frankland, just like everyone else trying to cross the bridge.
"This is the centerpiece of the regional transit project, getting across the bay," Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans said, whose group has been rallying the business community and politicians to support the project.
"We can’t afford to have the BRT congested and stalled getting between St. Pete and Tampa."
Homans stressed that a dedicated lane doesn’t have to mean an entire travel lane, but can refer to a hardened shoulder that the buses can use to avoid traffic. Most of the BRT route, in fact, would use hardened shoulders along Interstate 275.
But the state prefers not to use shoulders for bus lanes when other options, like express lanes, are available, Carson said.
"Shoulders serve primarily a safety purpose," Carson said. "Providing an area for disabled vehicles to find refuge, where crashes can be moved off the travel lane, where emergency vehicles can stage and/or get to a crash, and allow for vehicles to swerve as needed to avoid a crash."
Incoming Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and other politicians called for giving BRT a dedicated lane of some sort, during last month’s transit forum at Tampa International Airport.
"We cannot afford to do this unless we have a dedicated lane all the way through," Galvano said then.
But the state is poised to move forward with its bridge plans long before local leaders determine the future of BRT.
The state expects to award the bridge bid in 2019. Construction is slated to start in 2020, long before the details of any possible BRT route are likely to be approved. The bridge would open to traffic in 2024.
Meanwhile BRT is years from becoming a reality. The project’s planners will spend the next few months wrapping up public outreach on several regional transit options, including BRT. They’ll come up with a list of recommendations, and next year the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority will decided which projects will move forward.
If TBARTA picks BRT in 2019, then the project would require a development and environmental study that typically takes about 18 months.
Then there’s the separate discussion of how to pay for the project and convincing local governments to approve spending the money.
"My sense of it is that DOT is saying that there’s not going to be a dedicated lane for BRT across the Howard Frankland Bridge," Blanton said.
"Unless the community was going to come to some amazing level of consensus we’ve never seen before to convert one of the four travel lanes to a dedicated BRT. That would be the only way it could be done."
Local DOT Secretary David Gwynn has said while there is some room for change in a design-build contract, there will not be a reduction of lanes. That’s key because a past version of the Howard Frankland plan called for replacing a free lane with a toll lane. After a public outcry, officials restored the free lane.
Homans said he trusts the state will find a way to make room for a dedicated BRT lane on the new bridge.
"We’re asking the designers at FDOT to be as creative with the Howard Frankland as they’ve been with the other parts of the project," he said. "We’re confident that there’s a solution out there once they prioritize transit and ask themselves, ‘How do we make this happen?’"
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.