Tampa Bay transit agency broadens search for traffic solutions beyond light-rail

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area's transportation authority Friday voted to explore short-term solutions to traffic headaches beyond light rail.

Those could include widening roads, creating managed toll lanes along interstates and developing more freight-rail connections.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, also known as TBARTA, voted 8-0 to include those and other changes to its 2050 long-range transportation plan for seven bay area counties.

Commissioners said light rail remains an integral part of the region's overall transportation picture. Now, however, that image will also include more and wider roads, a beefed-up freight-rail system with hubs to off-load cargo to trucks, and creating managed interstate toll lanes where the tolls would fluctuate, depending on how congested other lanes are.

"This is not just about transit," Chairman Ronnie Duncan said. "This is also about roads and freight and integrating all of these systems together."

TBARTA's proposed light rail system, with transit hubs and lines stretching from Citrus to Sarasota counties, played a leading role in the authority's 2035 mid-range plan adopted two years ago.

Since then, however, passenger rail initiatives from around the region have taken a beating. Last November, voters shot down plans to add a penny to the sales tax to build and operate a light-rail system in Hillsborough County.

Then, this spring Gov. Rick Scott shelved plans for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando when he refused to accept more than $2 billion in federal funding to build the line.

Despite that, TBARTA's own rail aspirations remain alive. About a third of its proposed track-miles for regionwide rail are in the 2035 midrange plan. The remaining miles are in the 2050 long-range plan.

Much of the rest of the long-range plan remains unchanged. Commissioners did tweak areas of the plan, adding, for instance, dedicated lanes on interstates for express buses or high-occupancy vehicles.

The commissioners said they recognized that more attention should be paid to other potential short-term solutions to resolve traffic congestion. Among those, having traffic signals synchronized to keep traffic flowing and a larger freight rail network, with rail hubs, to lessen truck traffic on interstates.

In addition, executive director Bob Clifford said managed tolls lanes, which don't require an increase in sales taxes to be constructed, could be built along parts of Interstate 75, I-4 and I-275. The aim, he said, is integrate several traffic solutions and seek out options that don't require large public investments, as passenger rail systems do.

"Doing any of these big projects is difficult right now," he said. "There just isn't the budget."

The authority's long-range transportation plan is not binding on counties and cities. The plan provides a framework to guide regional transportation growth. By law, the authority is required to update its master transportation plan every two years.

Tampa Bay transit agency broadens search for traffic solutions beyond light-rail 06/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 24, 2011 11:48pm]

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