1. Florida Politics

GOP convention's 300 buses will be a big presence on Tampa Bay roads

Published Apr. 16, 2012

TAMPA — For many Tampa Bay commuters, the most important number at this summer's Republican National Convention won't be the 4,000 police officers, the 15,000 journalists or even the $175 million in convention spending.

The most important number for them will be 300.

That's how many charter buses — collectively known as the "GOP Express" — will carry delegates from about 100 hotels on both sides of Tampa Bay into downtown.

There, officials must ensure there's space to park those 300 buses "as close as possible" to the convention, according to Tampa's contract with the host committee.

And from there, the consequences will ripple outward.

Because of the space needed for bus parking, plus the official protest area, as well as road closures and other convention operations, demonstrators could have a walk of 15 blocks or more to get near enough to see the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the site of the Aug. 27-30 convention. "A hot walk," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "but it's walkable."

In downtown Tampa, police officers will stop cross-traffic at downtown intersections as delegate caravans roll through town.

And on the interstate, drivers could see a lane reserved just for delegate buses.

"At peak hours, there will be a dynamic that we've never experienced before," Buckhorn said.

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Why so many buses?

Because Tampa is not New York. There, a national political convention would be a blip on the radar.

In a midsized city like Tampa, "we don't have the hotel rooms within immediate proximity to the event," Buckhorn said.

That means conventioneers will be spread out in about 15,000 hotel rooms, 5,500 of them in Pinellas County.

With such complex logistics, the convention has hired an experienced fleet operator, SP Plus Gameday of Orlando.

Gameday has worked big events all over the world, including Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in 2009 and the 2008 NCAA women's basketball Final Four at the forum. It has run buses at past Olympic Games and will do so again this summer in London.

Paul Sorenson, the convention's director of transportation, said the GOP Express has one purpose: shuttling delegates between hotels and the convention. If delegates want to party in Ybor City after all the balloons drop, they'll find their own way back to the hotel.

The buses are full-sized, 56-seat motor coaches. Each will have law enforcement on board, Sorenson said, which is not unprecedented. In 2008, 350 officers a day were assigned to delegate buses at the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn.

But even that didn't always guarantee a smooth ride. On the first day of the St. Paul convention, anarchists got on a bridge and threw sandbags and temporary traffic signs onto a freeway off-ramp, striking a delegate bus.

The buses will be held at two secure sites, one location in Hillsborough and one in Pinellas, Sorenson said.

With convention sessions starting in early evening, the buses are expected to start arriving downtown around 5 p.m. and to leave from 10 to 11 p.m. The buses will be dispatched on a rolling basis, convention spokesman James Davis said.

The good thing is Tampa's afternoon rush-hour traffic is typically not concentrated around the forum.

Still, Tampa is a city once thrown into gridlock by a Zig Ziglar rally, so no one is looking to make things harder.

"Downtown will absolutely be open for business," said Christine Burdick, the president of the nonprofit Tampa Downtown Partnership. But she added: "We wouldn't encourage anybody to specifically make an effort to come into downtown in the afternoon until after the sessions start."

Roads outside of downtown will see the impact, too.

"There's going to be some congestion, no question about it," said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

So how are buses from Pinellas going to get in? Setting aside a dedicated lane on the interstate is possible, though officials caution it is far from certain.

It wouldn't be simple, Duncan said. Workers would have to erect concrete barriers to keep the lane segregated during the entire convention.

Ultimately, state and federal highway officials will decide.

"They have not made that decision," Duncan said. "And they don't make it lightly."

Still, Buckhorn said creating a dedicated lane might turn out to be a good pilot project to test whether bus rapid transit would help manage the region's traffic in the long run.

How about closing a bridge to all but convention traffic?

Not likely.

"I don't think you're going to see a bridge closed," Duncan said. "We're all approaching this from the perspective that life doesn't stop and go into standstill mode during the convention."

He said TBARTA is looking at ways to help downtown employers who need to bring in their workers. He said there's a possibility of using private buses or the authority's vans to pick up workers outside of downtown and bring them into work. "There's a diverse group of people trying to get in the lockdown zone," he said.

The city's transportation plan will hinge on how convention organizers and Gameday finalize the routes to and from the forum.

"We've got to maneuver those buses in and out with daily commuters, as well as the organized protesters, as well as parade routes," said Santiago Corrada, Buckhorn's chief of staff and the city's liaison to the convention. Tampa is no rookie when it comes to moving people and vehicles around big events, Corrada said.

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Like commuters, protesters will see their lives affected by the GOP Express.

With water on three sides, the part of downtown where the convention will take place has a limited amount of available open space. But officials not only have to park those buses in a secure area, but they have to provide an area for protests. Court cases require the First Amendment area to be within sight and earshot of the arena.

"Those will be the two large pieces of land we'll have to find to accommodate both," Buckhorn said. "And they may be in conflict with each other."

If so, that's a conflict that should be easily resolved, said John Dingfelder, senior staff attorney for the mid Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union. If authorities close the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway — a possibility confirmed last week — Dingfelder said the convention could park buses there. Beyond that, he said, "the First Amendment interests of peaceful protesters have to take a huge priority over bus parking."