Now that the public has had a week to digest it, it’s become clear that the state’s plan for new regional mass transit service has more to do with politics than with transportation planning, and advocates have more work to do in filling in the holes if they hope to secure public financing to make this plan a reality, much less a success.
A consultant hired by the state Department of Transportation recommended this month that area leaders pursue a rapid bus system as a "catalyst" project for improving mobility in the three-county region. The system, called BRT, would connect downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa with Wesley Chapel. BRT is widely popular as a mid-haul option in major metropolitan areas. And compared to rail, the consultant said, buses would be cheaper and faster to build, less expensive to operate and a more cost-efficient use of the areas’s existing major roads and interstates.
It’s no surprise that buses are cheaper than rail, given the land and other fixed costs involved with laying tracks and reserving a rail corridor. But this plan is a modest version of BRT at best, and officials are overselling what the project is and downplaying the related financial obligations the region must undertake to get this system off the ground.
While many communities operate BRT alongside cars in some places, this plan calls for buses to mix with cars along major stretches of the 41-mile route. Buses would share lanes with vehicles on the BRT route being planned along the so-called Central Avenue corridor in St. Petersburg (using First Avenues N and S), on the new Howard Frankland Bridge, on the northern stretch of I-275 between the University of South Florida Tampa campus and Wesley Chapel, and along city streets under the interstate where most of the bus stations would be located.
These are not truly dedicated lanes. While some are planned in toll lanes, anyone willing to pay could travel alongside BRT. The Central Avenue corridor route would allow for cars to make left turns; even the BRT lanes on the interstates could be separated by only soft barriers. All but two bus stations are planned at street level, meaning these buses will mix with local traffic in the most congested urban areas as they exit and enter the interstate. Buses would mix with cars on one-third or more of the route, with BRT traveling at least 7 miles in free, general use lanes.
None of this dissuaded a group of regional leaders who received the consultant’s findings at a public hearing this month from all but declaring that they could fund BRT within their existing transportation budgets. That’s a baseless promise that ignores the sorry state of mass transit in the region and the larger findings of the study itself. BRT depends on a vast expansion of bus service to get commuters from these new hubs to their final destinations. A major connection in downtown Tampa would involve reserving lanes and extending a streetcar — two projects that are still being studied and have no dedicated funding source. On Wednesday, the consultants corrected the cost estimates they released at the public hearing this month; they now estimate that Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco would face an annual cost to build and operate the system of up to $10.5 million, about 22 percent higher than the figure released Jan. 19. Officials blamed the discrepancy on a "data entry error."
Advocates are also mixing their message by insisting that Tampa Bay can move ahead on the cheap. As the consultant’s report underscores, BRT is seen as the first — not the final — piece of a modern transit system, with the next step being a rail line between downtown Tampa and USF. Why raise expectations that this buildout won’t require new and heavy investment early on? Political and business leaders are reversing course from a decade of messaging, which only enables transit opponents to say: We told you so.
The consultant will spend the spring and summer taking its recommendations on the road and soliciting public feedback. But this process already seems to be shifting into a public relations exercise. The panel of regional leaders who took in the findings this month spent much of their meeting trying to rename the vehicles BRT would use. (They’re called buses.) If that’s the level of honesty that’s going to permeate this debate, it’ll be a tough road for building public support for anything in the near future.