Editorial: Focus on improving, not killing, regional BRT concept

3. Traffic in the north bound lanes of I-275 on the hump of the Howard Frankland Bridge looking south back towards the Pinellas County side Thursday afternoon (8/12/04).
3. Traffic in the north bound lanes of I-275 on the hump of the Howard Frankland Bridge looking south back towards the Pinellas County side Thursday afternoon (8/12/04).
Published May 1 2018
Updated May 3 2018

Critics are finding plenty not to like about a proposed bus rapid transit system connecting Wesley Chapel, Tampa and St. Petersburg. But the cake’s not even in the oven; consultants are still toying with changes to make the system faster, more popular, more accommodating to various forms of transit and more competitive for federal funding. This is an opportunity to improve the concept, not prematurely kill it. The top priority should remain creating a regional transit spine that connects to local routes in each county, and a robust system needs both.

Regional leaders unveiled a plan in January to build a 41-mile BRT line connecting the three counties. The plan is envisioned as a catalyst project to help the tens of thousands of commuters living in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco who cross county lines to go to work every day. The plan’s toughest critics, though, include leading transit advocates in Hillsborough — the very ones who would have to help sell this plan politically. They say the system is poorly designed, would appeal to few commuters and is skewed to address regional congestion, not the everyday gridlock most commuters face in the individual counties.

Many of the criticisms are valid, to a point. There are still many questions to answer about a proposal to run express buses in the interstate shoulder. Early proposals to include 21 stations on the route seem ill suited for a rapid bus system. And the cost and ridership projections still need clarifying. Where will local bus agencies, which are already strapped, each find the $3.5 million or more every year to build and run the system — or the millions more it will take to expand existing bus service to get BRT passengers to their local destinations?

But it’s essential to remember what this proposal is about and that it is still early in the planning process. The proposal hopes to build mass transit service along the existing regional spine of Interstate 275, capitalizing on the existing highway that already runs through the region’s major cities, employment centers and airports. This is not designed to serve one county or to take the place of local connectors and other service improvements that individual counties should be providing. Framing this decision as an either-or choice ignores the reality that the area needs both regional connections and better local bus service.

Much of the planning is still in the formative stage. Consultants are soliciting public feedback, though it’s hard to tell where this proposal is going, as it lacks many key particulars that likely won’t emerge for months. That makes this the perfect time to massage the plan for the best chance of success. The Florida Department of Transportation has shown interest in connecting the region with mass transit like never before, and this is Tampa Bay’s chance to test the state’s commitment. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority now has more money and clear authority, and to its credit it has pledged to push for dedicated transit lanes along the BRT route and shorter wait times. This could make the buses truly rapid and serve as a corridor for emerging technologies later on.

There will be spending choices to make and plenty of details to nail down, but Tampa Bay business leaders, politicians and transit advocates should be striving for both regional and local solutions. It would be a lost opportunity if leaders in Hillsborough brushed off any interest in BRT merely because it’s not the end-all to the county’s transportation problem. The early critics raise some legitimate issues, but they should be advocating for improvements rather than for scrapping the entire concept at this early stage. TBARTA and other advocates recently have demonstrated their willingness to enhance the BRT proposal, and there is time to push to make it even better before any final decisions are made.