Saturday, February 24, 2018
Transportation

Sue Carlton: Tampa's ready for an express bus from the airport

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, an advocate for improving how we get around around here, recently flew in to Tampa International Airport with his family after a trip to Chicago.

Sharpe said they would take the bus home. No cab at the curb. No neighborly pickup. Public transportation or bust!

To which his wife said: We're what?

And his two teenagers promptly judged him insane.

The bus, when it came, had no place for luggage — despite stopping at the airport, where people tend to have, you know, luggage. Other riders stared. (Who were these nomadic creatures?) The bus stopped and stopped again and more people got on and stared. When the family finally got out, they dragged their luggage from the bus stop home.

So: We are not a public-transportation-to-the-airport, express-shuttle sort of town.

Despite all the buzz about Tampa turning a corner, about a bustling city center and Ybor City entertainment district, despite our ability to attract Bollywood and Super Bowls and a Republican National Convention, we remain, on some matters, transportation troglodytes.

Case in point: Tampa does not even have a public express shuttle between downtown and the airport, which, along with rail, is a no-brainer in other places. Yes, I dared to say "rail."

Despite growing conversation about the future of transit in both Pinellas and Hillsborough, "rail" still says "boondoggle" to those unwilling to look for alternatives to building more and more roads in order to sit in more and more traffic.

The last time I flew to Atlanta, I walked out of the airport and hopped on a train to the suburbs, sparing my hosts rush hour and myself a pricey cab ride. It was fast. It was easy. It wasn't here.

But a fix isn't just rail, it's as basic as buses.

In November, Pinellas voters will consider approving a sales tax increase not only to connect Clearwater and St. Petersburg by light rail, but also to vastly improve the bus system.

In Tampa, we're talking about a basic express bus to and from the airport for tourists, business visitors and residents — a great amenity for a city.

"Totally insane" that we do not have this, says airport CEO Joe Lopano. "Absolutely nuts," says Sharpe. "But we're going to fix that."

So when transit and government types talked about such a shuttle at a recent meeting, people sounded receptive — positive, even.

With suitcase space! With Wi-Fi so riders can make good use of the time! With even the possibility of a similar shuttle to the Brandon suburbs! As Lopano put it, why spend $50 million on another parking garage when we can use tried-and-true transportation?

Katharine Eagan, chief operating officer at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority — as in, buses — says, "I'm optimistic."

Some important fine print here: To work, this should include partnerships with private businesses like hotels and attractions, local companies and government agencies. Officials hope to have a plan, with actual routes and price tags, in May.

"Take no prisoners," says Sharpe, words you don't often hear in public transportation. And maybe one day catching the bus from the airport — in Tampa, even! — won't sound so crazy after all.

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