TAMPA — A study commissioned by Hillsborough County government cautions that improvements are needed in public bus service before the community could compete for light rail grants under new federal criteria.
The recent study dismayed advocates of a plan to put a tax-for-transportation referendum on an upcoming ballot, perhaps in 2016. But county staff cautioned the report is more of a checkup than an indictment, and that a more comprehensive study is needed once a specific transportation plan is developed.
"What I believe the report says is we have some work to do but we can get there," Hillsborough engineer Mike Williams said.
The Hillsborough County Transit Options Assessment was completed by consulting firm AECOM in May, but some local officials only recently were made aware of it before a meeting unveiling new strategies for a countywide transportation plan.
The assessment, which summarized previous studies over the past couple decades and included data from a range of sources, surfaced during a meeting announcing a plan to elicit feedback from the public on a list of hundreds of projects including light rail that could be helped by voter approval of a 1-cent sales tax.
The report calls for developing enhanced or rapid bus options before delving into light rail.
"Hillsborough County should approach making transit investments cautiously and prudently," the report states. "There is significant room for ridership growth in the HART service area before a major investment in (light rail transit) would be viable."
The report argues that "only smaller scale transit investments seem to make economic sense" in light of new criteria adopted by the Federal Transit Administration — part of the U.S. Department of Transportation — for evaluating applications for funds.
"That's really why the landscape has changed from where we were a few years ago," County Administrator Mike Merrill told members of the policy leadership group. "The criteria for becoming eligible for grant money has changed. And to be competitive, we need to know now what steps we need to take to be competitive when we're ready to go for grants."
The document, Merrill said, is not a ruling but rather an evaluation of where the county stands.
"What we wanted was an honest assessment, an independent assessment of where we stand in terms of our preparedness and our ability to embark on all kinds of transit solutions," Merrill said. "You want to know, what is your health today in terms of transit. … We needed to know the answer, and the answer is not negative."
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, one of the most fervent mass transit supporters, said the report is correct in its analysis but only one piece of a larger picture.
"Because of our very limited bus system and lack of an established track record in regard to extensive use of transit by all of our citizens, it would be challenging to just stand up a system tomorrow," Sharpe said.
"To state that we wouldn't be competitive is, I think, a stretch. But, at the same time, it does point out some very obvious shortcomings that we've got to address as we move forward."
The report states that the "vast majority of new rail projects" implemented nationwide in the past few decades occurred in communities where existing transit ridership levels are significantly higher than those in Hillsborough.
Kevin Thurman, executive director for transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay, cautioned against statements the report makes and the data it uses.
For example, the report says the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus system carries about 50,000 riders on an average weekday, whereas Orlando's bus authority carries more than 96,000 daily riders. The comparison, he said, is an unfair one. According to the National Transit Database, the Central Florida Regional Transit Authority serves twice as many people and 10 times more square miles than HART.
The report also focuses on cost effectiveness as its main determining factor, without touching on other measures, such as potential economic development and mobility improvements.
Thurman argued that the data included in the study were cherry-picked to present a certain result.
"He didn't do an exhaustive analysis," Thurman said of the AECOM study's author. "This is closer to a term paper than a true analysis of how much it would cost to build any kind of fixed-guideway transit in Tampa and Hillsborough County."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.