Column: Why bus rapid transit makes sense for Tampa Bay

Published January 29 2018
Updated January 30 2018

There’s something markedly different about the transit conversations taking place throughout Tampa Bay today. For the first time in a long time, it feels like we’re actually making progress.

We’ve moved from talking to planning, and now, we hope, to the implementation of a proposed Gold Standard Bus Rapid Transit project that would run a critical 41-mile route through Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties along the I-275 corridor.

Just over a year ago, work officially started on the Regional Transit Feasibility Plan (RTFP). The Tampa Bay Partnership stood solidly behind the process: a rigorous evaluation of housing and employment data, along with a thorough analysis of transit modes, ridership and costs. The result is a vision for a regional transit system with a catalyst project that can compete effectively for state and federal funds.

The project team from Jacobs Engineering formally presented the draft plan this month to the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group, and it’s a major step in the right direction.

We can now see how our metro area, the 18th largest in the nation, might eventually be linked via bus and rail, with enough flexibility to embrace the innovative transportation solutions of the future.

The BRT project can be completed relatively quickly and leverage existing state money planned for the Tampa Bay Next interstate improvement program. Plus, it’s truly regional, providing a much-needed transit connection between the intermodal stations planned for Wesley Chapel, the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa, Westshore/Tampa International Airport, Gateway/Carillon and downtown St. Petersburg.

A Gold Standard BRT system would also deliver nearly all the benefits of light rail at a significantly lower cost. And unlike light rail, even the most conservative BRT ridership projections meet the criteria for federal funding.

Just Google "Gold Standard BRT" and we think you’ll be amazed by what you see and read: elevated and enclosed stations with sliding glass doors; dedicated BRT lanes, either painted or physically separated from general traffic; vehicles that look more like sleek light rail lines than a neighborhood bus; pre-paid fare collection to allow passengers to board quickly and keep the buses moving; and frequent headways, arriving at least every 15 minutes, and more frequently during peak hours.

You’ll find that most of the best examples of BRT are found outside the United States, throughout Latin America, India and China. Which means that, despite how far behind the rest of the country we are on transit (or perhaps because of it), we now we have an opportunity to be a leader in the next generation of transportation innovation.

Innovation is creating a massive disruption within the transportation industry, and supporting BRT as our first significant transit project is a pragmatic approach that keeps transit initiatives moving forward, while preparing for the introduction of new technology.

With this BRT project and its dedicated lanes, we maintain maximum flexibility for these future technologies and we preserve a dedicated, regional transit corridor that can be used by multiple modes in the future including, quite possibly, rail.

We also believe the intermodal stations can generate the highly coveted transit-oriented development if our local governments adopt forward-thinking policies to encourage strategic growth. To attract significant private investment, we must change local zoning regulations to encourage high-density development and fund additional public investment in sidewalks, lighting, landscaping and other public amenities.

These stations should be truly intermodal — with sidewalks, bikeshare, rideshare, buses, light rail, streetcars, trolleys and other modes of transit connecting to the BRT. Revenue from the development of these stations, and the area immediately around them, could possibly be used to help fund the transit system itself.

The Florida Department of Transportation, through Tampa Bay Next, appears willing to invest billions of dollars in our transportation infrastructure. Its leaders have said they want the regional plan to be multi-modal, and they’ve funded the study that proposed the Gold Standard BRT.

During the next five years, we have a strong roster of legislative leaders in Tallahassee, from all corners of the region. They’ve also expressed a desire to move the needle on transit in Tampa Bay and support for concepts such as autonomous and BRT.

All the critical pieces are in place, and there’s no better time to get started.

We’ve talked about transit for decades, and we have a chance to take a major, first step. Other steps will follow. Let’s make sure we don’t trip at the starting gate. We need to continue marching forward now.

Chad Loar, regional president of PNC Bank, and Barry Shevlin, CEO of Vology, serve as co-chairs of the Tampa Bay Partnership’s Transportation Working Group.