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Tampa Bay's bus rapid transit: Do it right, which means paying for dedicated lanes

A CT Fastrack bus runs in its own guideway in Hartford, Connecticut. The system opened in 2015. Transportation planners are considering bring a BRT line to Tampa Bay.
Published Aug. 5, 2018

Like pirate parades, chintzing on transit is a regional pastime.

We have sporadic bus systems and no light rail. We highlight Tampa's turtle-slow streetcar, all 2.7 miles of it, while Orlando shows off 50 miles of commuter train lines

But cut rate won't cut it if we go ahead with the area's proposed bus rapid transit system. We need to do it right. Watered down equals don't bother.

The 41-mile project, which would run along the interstate from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg, can't be an incremental improvement to an anemic transit system. It should be transformative, a catalyst for creating an integrated transportation network.

Doing it right starts with dedicated BRT lanes. Without them, it hardly seems worth building. The system wouldn't be able to live up to the "rapid" part of its name.

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During rush hour, the buses need to blow by drivers crawling through downtown Tampa, stuck on the Howard Frankland Bridge, or tied up near State Road 56 in Pasco County. Those frustrated drivers must grow jealous of the people zooming past. They need be thinking, "Maybe I should give that a try." Call it transit envy.

Pittsburgh's well-used system includes dedicated lanes that allow buses to move at up to 75 mph between stations. The new system in Hartford, Conn., which exceeded early ridership estimates, runs in its own lanes.

Dedicated lanes "are essential to creating a service that people will value," said Whit Blanton, head of Forward Pinellas, the county's transportation planning agency. "(They) provide a more reliable trip than driving, and would allow transit to be competitive in terms of travel time."

The design consultants are still massaging Tampa Bay's plan. They are speaking with community groups to help improve the concept. They expect to release the next report before the new year.

The original plan, unveiled in January, called for the buses to mingle with regular traffic on long stretches of the route. That would have slowed them down too often.

Several regional leaders have pushed for more dedicated lanes. At a minimum they want BRT lanes along the 31 miles from Pinellas to northern Hillsborough. More dedicated lanes will inflate the $455 million price tag, though it's unclear by how much.

There's a chance costs will get too high. But cutting back by forgoing dedicated lanes would doom the system before the first bus rolled out.

The Howard Frankland might not get dedicated lanes. Instead, the buses could share 11 miles of managed toll lanes being built as part of the massive interstate overhaul called Tampa Bay Next. The toll prices rise with congestion. In theory, higher tolls discourage too many drivers from entering the two lanes, allowing vehicles to maintain at least 45 mph.

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It doesn't always work that way. Miami's flexibly priced toll lanes sometimes clog up even when they hit the maximum allowable rate.

Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans has advocated for dedicated lanes along the entire route, including the Howard Frankland. He worries political leaders will feel pressured to keep the tolls low, which will add too many cars to the toll lanes, slowing down the buses.

"Speeds go down from 45 mph to 35 to 25, and then suddenly for an 11-mile stretch you've lost the effectiveness of the regional transit system," he said. "You've lost the scheduling certainty, and you run the risk of getting tied up in a huge traffic jam on the bridge."

Michael Case, interim executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority also wants to explore adding dedicated BRT lanes to the bridge.

"But if the cost of building dedicated lanes on the Howard Frankland increases the overall cost to a point where the system is no longer competitive for federal funding, I think the system could still operate efficiently using the managed toll lanes," he said.

North of Bearss Avenue to Interstate 75, the buses are supposed to share existing lanes with cars, a stretch that generally doesn't get as congested. Forgoing dedicated lanes there will help keep overall costs down, but could be short-sighted. Pasco County's population is expected to explode in coming years, adding a lot more drivers.

"If we don't include those dedicated lanes, five years from now we are going to look back and hit ourselves on the forehead and say, 'Why didn't we take care of this when we had a chance to do it,' " Homans said. "This is a chance to stay ahead of the trend."

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The buses also need easy access to the stations. They can't get stuck at traffic lights or caught on congested off ramps. And they can't meander too far from the route's main spine. Pinching pennies in these areas will hamstring the system.

The plan includes running the buses on the interstate shoulder. That's fine, as long as there's enough in the budget to widen and redesign the lanes to allow buses to move quickly, and to maneuver around broken-down vehicles. They also can't slow down at every vehicle off ramp. That will require spending enough money to run much of the dedicated lanes along the median, where they won't run into cars getting on and off the interstate.

There are other important considerations. The buses have to run frequently enough. They need to be clean and safe. They can't stop at too many stations. Those stations need to be easy to access. None of that will matter much if no one rides the buses because they are constantly stuck in traffic.

This is not an endorsement of the BRT project. There are too many unknowns still to work out to accurately assess its value. And it's not an argument to build it at any cost. If the price balloons, reassess.

But dedicated lanes are a must. No cheaping out on those.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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