Tuesday, October 23, 2018
Opinion

Column: Bus Rapid Transit deserves a fair shake as a catalyst transportation project

The Florida Department of Transportation has invested in a study to address our transit woes. That study, dubbed the "Regional Transit Feasibility Plan," validates concerns expressed across our region and for good reason. Over the next 20 years, local travel miles will increase by 51 percent — yet current plans provide for no more than a 19 percent increase in traffic lane miles, projecting a 220 percent increase in congestion within a region that already suffers from protracted delays.

The first step of the plan was to identify top-performing connections and recommend a "catalyst" project to get us out of the gate. While other options are still being vetted, the project that has emerged as the front-runner is regional Bus Rapid Transit ("BRT") from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida to Wesley Chapel.

After decades of stagnation, we were finally presented with a meaningful opportunity to start chipping away at our transportation challenges with a regional project that checks multiple boxes. Instead of grabbing it, voices from a small group of opponents are now allowing this option to slip through our fingers in search of something more ideal down the road. Indeed, instead of engaging in legitimate analysis and debate, the naysayers are already trying to kill the idea.

For too long, our business community and our community at large has stood by while local officials have fallen prey to the latest and loudest voices in the room. It’s time for our local leaders to demonstrate the moral courage and political will to recognize the system is broken and the time to fix it is now.

We hear that frustration every day, from those businesses that are creating jobs in our region and others who are contemplating doing the same. Despite what some are saying, we have long since moved beyond the notion that any one solution (be it light rail, robust ferry service, road expansion or express bus lanes) is going to get us there. And so too have our young professionals, who see BRT as a logical starting point. We know it will take multiple options, but we must start somewhere. We must start today.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the St. Pete Young Professionals and our Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay can no longer stand idle while another transportation can gets kicked down the road. We have benchmarked several cities that are well ahead of us on this issue (Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Denver and Minneapolis to name a few), and all have taught us that BRT is a logical first step toward an effective regional transit system. It’s the right start for our city, our county and our region.

BRT represents a reasonable starting point; it is affordable, regional, timely and inclusive:

AFFORDABLE. At a capital cost of $380 million to $455 million, the cost per trip would run $8 to $10 while competing for federal and state dollars right now.

REGIONAL. At 41 miles long, it would connect three counties and 83,500 jobs within a half-mile radius and will directly interface with the "Beach To Bay BRT" project — the only transit project with local funds already committed and currently in favorable consideration for federal matching funds.

TIMELY. The project would only take approximately five years to construct, and no right of way would be needed except for bus stations.

INCLUSIVE. Approximately 65,000 households located within a half-mile of the project would be serviced by 21 stations along the route.

Thirty years ago, our greatest regional challenge was transportation. And yet, here we are with no progress in sight. The time for ultimatums has passed. It’s time to move beyond paralysis toward consensus and meaningful progress.

Our businesses — and those considering a move to Tampa Bay — expect it. Our employees and co-workers need it. Our young professionals demand it. And our children deserve it.

Steve Bernstein is chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and Andrew W. Smith is chair of that chamber’s young professionals group, the Emerging Leaders of Tampa Bay. Anne Drake McMullen is chair of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce Chair, and Brooks Wallington is that chamber’s Young Professionals chair.

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