TAMPA — Sleek, shiny, technology-laden and quick — Hillsborough County's newest form of mass transit is meant to lure commuters out of their cars and into a passenger seat.
It isn't light rail. But, if successful, it could be a step toward it.
Debuting today, MetroRapid features 12 new green and white buses, 59 stations and technology to make the north-south route from Temple Terrace to downtown Tampa fly by faster than ever. And for the first two weeks, the typical $2 fare per ride is waived.
It's the latest move to provide more mass transit options in a county where just a few years ago voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for light rail, expanded bus service and road work.
"Rapid transit is a very cost-effective way to start moving Hillsborough County forward to the next transit mode," said Philip Hale, CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. "Once we develop that ridership, we can go to the federal government and say the need is there for light rail."
Funded through the county's Community Investment Tax, the roughly $25 million MetroRapid project began in 2008. It's the first bus rapid transit system in Florida, Hale said, though unlike other BRT lines, this one will share lanes with normal traffic.
The new route runs Monday through Friday along Nebraska Avenue from park-and-ride lots on Fletcher Avenue at Hidden River Parkway near Telecom Park and at the University Area Transit Center near Bruce B. Downs. The route goes south to the downtown Marion Transit Center.
The highlight of the trip? Transit Signal Priority, a GPS-based technology that extends green lights and shortens red lights for MetroRapid buses at 40 intersections along the route.
The technology shaves 15 to 20 percent off normal bus route travel time, Hale said, clocking a ride through the entire 17.5-mile corridor at less than an hour.
There are also fewer stops to slow the bus down, Hale said. Each one is about three-quarters of a mile apart as opposed to every few blocks. Buses run every 15 minutes for the majority of the route and every 30 minutes in the Fletcher Avenue section between the University Area Transit Center and the Hidden River park-and-ride lot.
Ticket vending machines at many of the shelters should also save time during the boarding process.
"The buses are going to look different, the stops are going to look different, hopefully, our timing, based on the signal synchronization, is going to make it quicker," said Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, who also sits on the HART board. "Hopefully, this will make people sit up and notice that taking the bus is an alternative to their own vehicle."
Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Sandra Murman is hoping for the same.
"It's a great alternative mode of transportation," she said. "People have been leery about taking the bus in the past but once they realize they can get on a bus and get to their destination very quickly, they'll change their minds."
HART expects riders to take about 80,000 trips on MetroRapid through the end of the fiscal year in September. And the goal is to have 60 percent of riders be new mass transit customers within a year, as opposed to those who already use the system, Hale said.
"The bottom line is, once people see the clean new buses and that it's very timely and will get you where you want to go, people will have confidence in it," Hale said. "That's what people want."
Commuters across the county could soon have even more options. HART already is planning an east-west route heading from Tampa International Airport to East Tampa, though funding has yet to be secured.
Still, everyone is not convinced light rail will automatically follow MetroRapid.
"Can it lead to light rail? Sure it can, but it is not going to be the only way to do that," Suarez said. "We actually need more money to do that. Light rail is an expensive concept, and we have no way to fund it right now."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.