Editorial: HART raises smart concerns about regional bus proposal

Traffic is seen during morning rush hour on Interstate 275 headed northbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Tuesday, July 18, 2017.
LOREN ELLIOTT | Times Traffic is seen during morning rush hour on Interstate 275 headed northbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Tuesday, July 18, 2017.
Published February 6 2018
Updated February 7 2018

The reluctance by Hillsborough Countyís mass transit agency this week to embrace a proposed rapid bus system should be a warning sign. As much as some political and business leaders want to get moving on a plan, any plan, for mass transit, this version is not yet the robust vision Tampa Bay desperately needs to be more competitive. Itís wise to voice these reservations now to encourage transportation planners to be bolder and not assume this region lacks the will to more aggressively tackle congestion that is choking its progress.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board members raised appropriate questions Monday about a proposed bus rapid transit system, or BRT, stretching 41 miles from Wesley Chapel to downtown St. Petersburg. A state Department of Transportation consultant has recommended area leaders pursue BRT first rather than light rail, which it previously had ranked first. The consultant said a BRT system would be cheaper and faster to build, less expensive to operate and a more cost-efficient use of the areasís existing major roads and interstates. While some public officials and the Tampa Bay Partnership composed of local business leaders have embraced the BRT proposal as politically and financially pragmatic, HART board members focused on the initial planís shortcomings and suggested it is not ready to promote to the public.

As the discussion reinforced, the BRT proposal would be unlikely to transform commuting across Tampa Bay or generate the broad public support needed for any regional transit system, regardless of whether that system relies on buses, light rail or some other mode. This plan calls for buses to mix with cars along most of the route, both along Interstate 275 and on city streets under the interstate where most of the bus stations would be located. While advocates say the proposal would at least get the region moving on transit and that light rail could be added later, itís difficult to see how this approach would make Tampa Bay competitive with Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Denver or other urban areas that are decades ahead on mass transit.

HART board member Pat Kemp, a Hillsborough County commissioner, questioned the wisdom of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to provide buses on an elevated interstate. She noted correctly that the plan is not even genuine BRT. The buses would have their own lane only in the interstate median between West Shore and downtown Tampa, with much of the route confined to the shoulder or lanes shared with cars and other vehicles. While it would be less expensive than light rail, the price tag and how local governments would pay for their share of the cost even for BRT remain unclear.

The concerns raised by HART members and the boardís reluctance to start to help sell this version to the public are useful contributions to the continuing discussion. After two failed light rail referendums in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties over the last eight years, itís understandable that many political and civic leaders are desperate to advance virtually any transit plan as congestion has worsened. Regional planning that has long been needed is taking place, state officials are more cooperative than they were in other eras and Tampa Bay has been falling further behind its competitors. But the cheapest, quickest option is rarely the smartest approach.

There is time to significantly improve this initial BRT proposal. Unlike previous transit projects voters rejected, this one smartly spans the bay and focuses on creating a mass transit spine that can be added to in the future. It recognizes the critical need for mass transit, and it has caught the attention of political and business leaders across Tampa Bay. But HARTís useful discussion this week reinforces that this plan needs to be bolder, regardless of whether the initial technology involves sleek buses or light rail.

This is the remarkable opportunity Tampa Bay has been seeking for years to unite the region in pursuing a 21st century mass transit system. It should not be squandered because of a lack of civic and political will to aim high and convince voters a visionary transit plan is a smart investment and essential to our future.