Tampa forum favors light-rail, dedicated bus lanes as mass-transit solutions

A public forum on mass transit is part of a study which will recommend three projects.
Lagging behind other areas in mass rapid transit, such as Phoenix, above, with its light rail system, may prove a plus for the Tampa Bay area if it takes advantage of new technology, said Scott Pringle of Jacobs Engineering. Valley Metro
Lagging behind other areas in mass rapid transit, such as Phoenix, above, with its light rail system, may prove a plus for the Tampa Bay area if it takes advantage of new technology, said Scott Pringle of Jacobs Engineering.Valley Metro
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TAMPA — More than 70 residents and business owners attending a public forum on rapid transit appeared to agree at least on one thing Thursday: They like light rail and dedicated bus lanes to move people through congested Hillsborough County.

The two-hour forum at the Tampa History Center — one of three scheduled in the Tampa Bay region — is the first public step in a $1.5 million study by Jacobs Engineering that eventually will recommend three out of more than a dozen possible projects as the area's first venture into mass rapid transit.

Many of the current proposals involve the possible purchase of about nine miles of CSX tracks at an estimated cost of $60 million to $100 million.

Then there is the cost of the transit system itself.

The shortest proposed route, connecting South Tampa to the downtown area, ranges from $110 million to $5 billion, depending on the type of transit.

Area planners are hoping much of this will be funded by federal grants, which would need congressional approval. Once a system is built, operation and maintenance costs of millions of dollars each year would likely be paid by local government.

In January, Jacobs Engineering will present proposals for public comment.

Politicians and transit advocates alike have placed a lot of weight on the 2½-year study, which the Florida Department of Transportation paid for and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is overseeing. They hope it can provide a blueprint for one day solving the area's transportation woes.

That the Tampa Bay region has waited so long to move on rapid transit, lagging behind similar metropolitan areas, might prove a plus, said Scott Pringle, who is leading the Jacobs study. Advances in transit technology will allow the region to jump ahead of existing metro transit systems, Pringle said.

"We're so far behind, we're ahead," he said,

The goal is to provide quick, easy transportation that would reach at least six in 10 jobs across the region, half of its residents and 6 in 10 of those who do not have cars.

The study is focused on eight different types of transit, ranging from traditional commuter rail to water taxis.

Five corridors selected as most in need of better transportation options would provide connections among areas including northern Hillsborough County, the University of South Florida area, Brandon, downtown Tampa, Westshore and the airport, Clearwater and St. Petersburg

So far, the consultants see the best rapid transit solution as a "rubber tire" system — buses and automated vehicles traveling along dedicated lanes — connecting commuters from Wesley Chapel and St. Petersburg to points in between.

The next best solution would connect downtown Tampa and the USF area via rubber tire options or light rail.

Third on the possible project list is a steel wheel-based, light-rail system connecting points from northern Hillsborough County to St. Petersburg.

"We've done a really good job building roads but it can't be the only solution," Pringle said.

During the forum, people viewed a series of exhibits that explained the routes, modes of transportation and potential costs. They were asked to submit written comments, too. Here is a sampling:

• "We need light rail and a better commute."

• "The input and studies have been done!! Do something (underlined five times)."

• "Wesley Chapel to downtown Tampa. Connect our city!!"

• "Please stop talking and studying and build the Interstate with the transit corridor."

• "No tolls, no destruction of homes or businesses."

People also were asked to vote on proposed transit solutions before they left. Most did.

Although opinions were scattered, the highest number of votes were for light rail systems throughout Hillsborough County. This contrasted sharply with another forum held earlier in the week in Pasco County, where many of the 25 attendees opted for rubber tire solutions.

A third forum is scheduled 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesdsay (Aug. 29) at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, 3201 Scherer Dr., St. Petersburg).

Contact Sheila Mullane Estrada at [email protected]

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