Daniel Ruth: If it’s time to move on from light rail, let’s move faster this time

Published January 19 2018

Perhaps it was that noted existentialist philosopher Kenny Rogers, or maybe it was the post-modernist French thinker Michel Foucault, who first said, "You need to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em." But let’s not quibble.

If you are one of those transportation geeks (read: Turanchik, Ed) who have long advocated for the creation of a light rail system linking greater Tampa Bay, it is time to put a fork in your vision. Light rail will never be implemented in our fair hamlet. It has now become too cost prohibitive. Too complicated. Too political. Too difficult.

The rail apostles gave it a good try. They did their best. And they came up short — by, oh, a few billions of dollars and hundreds of miles.

It is time to move on. And that might mean moving on aboard BRT, which is the latest mass transit plan unveiled in a $1.5 million study prepared by Jacobs Engineering that could mark the first real effort to create a regional transit model linking Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough Counties. It’s about time.

As reported by the Tampa Bay Times’ Caitlin Johnston, the Regional Premium Transit Feasibility Study (catchy title) envisions the creation of a modified bus system closely resembling light rail carriages that would service a 40-mile route connecting Wesley Chapel, to the University of South Florida, to downtown Tampa, to the West Shore area and into downtown St. Petersburg along Interstate 275.

The BRT would travel along mostly dedicated lanes and when (or if) fully implemented it would link up with other transit modes to get people where they need to go.

At first blush, the BRT concept has a lot going for it, not the least of which is that it would cost far less to launch and operate than the disruption that would be caused by the construction of rail lines throughout the proposed service area.

As well, politically, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn supports the concept of BRT, as does St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. And even Tampa Bay Lightning owner and the undisputed Viceroy of Tampa, Jeff Vinik, has noted he is well pleased by the BRT idea. And will someone please peel him a grape?

And the influential Tampa Bay Partnership is also supportive. Well, with so many hotsy-tots on board with BRT what could possibly go wrong? Give it time.

There are always a few grumps who will mutter than anything except a vast transportation network of rickshaws is a complete waste of time and money. This is Tampa Bay, after all, where, especially when it comes to transportation, the future goes to die.

Still, the BRT concept, as outlined by Jacobs Engineering, does hold out the promise of Tampa Bay finally addressing its long festering inability to develop a coherent transit strategy that doesn’t involve simply adding more and more lanes to our expressways. That is a giant leap of progress. But don’t spread it around. We have an image to protect.

The Tampa Bay area is decades behind the rest of the country in addressing its transportation demands as the region only has grown in population, exacerbating an already expanding daily gridlock of motorists stuck in traffic. What way big fun.

Still, as lovely as BRT might seem, the Florida Department of Transportation still must spend the next year or more rubbing their chins over the Jacobs study before anything happens. And nobody does navel gazing better than the DOT.

So, it is possible, just possible, the BRT system could begin operations somewhere around — eventually, more or less.

By state standards that amounts to a breakneck pace of thumb-sucking.