Circulator system could be running in USF Tampa area by summer

Published March 2
Updated March 3

TAMPA — Former County Commissioner Mark Sharpe wants to get people who live and work in the University of South Florida area out of their cars and on to public transit.

He hopes a new circulator connecting the university to nearby medical centers and Busch Gardens will help convince people to ditch their personal vehicles when going to lunch, stopping by the mall or grabbing drinks after work at World of Beer or other nearby options.

It could take years before people are willing to give up their cars. But Sharpe said this project linking the traditionally gridlocked area between Fletcher Avenue and Busch Boulevard could give a region full of commuters a taste of mass transit.

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"Once you’re able to see a whole network and how it works, then we’ll truly have people out of their cars," Sharpe said.

The 7-mile loop is set to start running this summer, ideally in June, said Sharpe, chief potential officer for Tampa’s !P, a 6-year-old nonprofit that started as the Tampa Innovation Alliance. And, at least for the first few years, it will be free.

This is not a short-term, one-shot pilot, but instead a new transportation option for one of Tampa’s poorest neighborhoods. The high-percentage of working poor in the university area coupled with tens of thousands of college students makes the area prime for transit use outside of just business workers looking to grab lunch.

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The circulator also aims to be one of the region’s first true examples of a public-private partnership for transit: while Florida Department of Transportation and Hillsborough County have agreed to cover some of the $850,000 price tag, the success of the project is dependent on !P’s anchors, like Moffitt Cancer Center, USF and the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital chipping in, Sharpe said.

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The circulator is part of a larger vision to stitch together hyper-local options — like Tampa’s streetcar and a proposed bus rapid transit line from St. Petersburg to the beaches — with a yet-to-be-determined regional project to form a transit spine connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The leading option for that regional solution is the proposed plan to build a 41-mile bus rapid transit line between Wesley Chapel, USF and the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Supporters say the system would form a spine to which smaller, local transit options can connect.

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Once both regional and local transit options are up and running, Sharpe said, that will it make much easier for people to stop using their cars to go everywhere.

"We expect of the hundreds of thousands who drive though our district each day, that some will be using our circulator," Sharpe said, "so we might begin to lessen the congestion."

The success story for transit comes when an entire network is stitched together, said Clarence Eng, the chairman of !P’s advisory board who is leading the development of the circulator project.

The key isn’t just building one successful transit option, he said, but linking it to others, like a bike share network at USF, local and regional bus routes, Tampa’s streetcar, and a host of all sorts of other options.

"As a region, we need to start thinking about our immediate first steps and how they can support a larger network," Eng said. "It’s hard coming out of the starting gates and wanting to do everything. This is an important first piece of the puzzle."

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Many of the details for the circulator still need to be refined, but Sharpe said the University area circulator plans to use smaller, potentially hybrid or electric vehicles, that seat about 14 people. Passengers can jump on at one of approximately 22 stops and take the shuttle in either direction. The goal is for the circulator to run every 20 minutes.

But as with any transit project that has been proposed in the bay area over the decades, two main questions dominate conversations: who will ride it and where will the money come from?

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here’s why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

Sharpe imagines riders of all sorts: USF students who work at Busch Gardens, Moffitt employees who park on one hospital campus but work at another, tourists who want stop by the mall or the Yuengling Brewing Company, professors who have meetings off campus but don’t want to cross Fowler Avenue on foot.

Eng said there are about 17,000 jobs and 12,000 people living within a quarter of a mile of the stops, and the thousands of daily visitors, workers and students. That number could only grow when factoring in planned development at University Mall, the VA, Moffitt and other anchors.

"People don’t want to move their car to go to lunch, because they don’t want to lose their parking spot," Eng said. "The circulator not only helps connect the dots, but helps support economic development.

"People can easily go to Portillo’s or Miller’s Ale House or World of Beer or whatever," he added, citing some recent additions to University Mall.

The project is expected to cost around $850,000, Eng said, to be split amongst the state, county and local businesses.

The Florida Department of Transportation and Hillsborough County are willing to contribute more than $500,000 to pay for the project, as long as Sharpe and others are able to secure additional money from private investors, Sharpe said.

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It will be a busy month for the former commissioner, who needs as many of those private commitments in hand before Sharpe appears in front of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board in April to discuss the circulator. From there, the county commission would still need to vote on the project before approving the money.

"We’re working on commitments from each of our anchors," he said. "We’re just determining at what level they’d like to contribute and how that will grow as the project proceeds."

Sharpe said Yuengling and Moffitt had already committed, but he couldn’t say for how much. Sharpe is also going to connect with smaller businesses, like World of Beer, to see what sort of investment they’d be willing to contribute.

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

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