TAMPA — Hillsborough’s transit agency is refining plans for dedicated bus lanes that would allow riders to travel from downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida area without getting backed up in traffic.
The lanes, which would separate buses from other traffic, are a major component of bus rapid transit — a transit option that usually comes with other amenities like special stations and street-level level boarding.
This is the third bus rapid transit project planned for the region. St. Petersburg is pursuing federal grant money for lanes connecting downtown with the beaches and a regional transportation group is studying a 41-mile route that would link Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties using the interstates.
The bus rapid transit line in Tampa would provide connections with the regional route and with a planned extension of the Tampa streetcar that would reach north to Palm Avenue.
Planners with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority said the goal is to have these premium transit options connect with existing bus routes, bike shares and scooters to build a larger network. Premium transit is service that moves a higher number of riders quicker and farther than other forms of transit.
Transit officials do not know yet how much the Tampa project would cost, where it would stop and how many people it might carry. They are expected to refine some details before presenting the project to the transit authority board for approval this spring. If board members vote to advance the project, planners will select stops and pursue state and federal grant dollars.
Some details, such as the number of stops and layout of the route, were shared at a community workshop earlier this week in Seminole Heights.
The Tampa line would run north on Florida Avenue from downtown to Linebaugh Avenue. It would travel east on Linebaugh for a block to Nebraska Avenue then north on Nebraska to Fowler Avenue. An exclusive bus lane would run down the median of Fowler east to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, where the route would turn north before ending near USF.
The bus would make 20 stops along the way, each about half a mile apart, senior planner Justin Willits said.
Eight of the route’s 12 miles would use exclusive transit lanes, enabling the buses to bypass traffic.
Riders would pay the same fare as they do on other county buses — $2 one-way or $4 unlimited rides for the day.
“On sections where we have completely dedicated guideways, we assume there will likely be more transit operating additional routes in there over time,” Willits said. That could include other bus routes and a further extension of the Tampa Streetcar.
The new route would run close by Route 1, which takes about 45 to 50 minutes to connect downtown and USF. The goal is to shave about 30 percent off the existing time, bringing the ride closer to 30 minutes end to end, Willits said.
But he expects most trips will consist of people starting somewhere in between, not riding the entire route. This line is designed to serve local jobs, errands and homes and as a compliment to existing or future regional routes.
“The important part is that it shortens those trips from the middle point up to USF or down toward Tampa,” Willits said. “It’s more appealing for the local trips.”
People looking to connect between downtown and USF are likely to ride the existing 275 LX, which takes 20-30 minutes, or use the proposed regional bus rapid transit line, Willits said. Both of those will run on the interstate, as opposed to the Tampa line, which will use local streets.
“I’m excited that HART is pursuing more projects that represent real (bus rapid transit) on our urban corridors and arterials,” said Michelle Cookson who is part of the Old Seminole Heights Neighborhood Association. “Projects like this are going to move more people and have really important connections to where people are able to work and able to live.”
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp has criticized running regional bus rapid transit along the interstate, but showed interest in the local option that officials discussed for Florida Avenue.
“I’m excited about street level bus rapid transit,” Kemp said. “That’s the thing that I think enhances communities and creates ridership.”
However, she said she would not support the project if it means less service along Nebraska Avenue, one of the transit agency’s highest ridership corridors.
Willits said it’s too early to know how much it would cost to buy vehicles, build the dedicated transit guideway, and purchase right of way and construct stations. Those costs would potentially be split among the transit agency, city of Tampa, Florida Department of Transportation and federal grants. It’s up to the transit authority’s board to decide whether they want to pursue federal dollars for the project.
Once the route is up and running — as early as 2024 — it would cost $5 million to $8 million to operate each year, Willits estimated. This includes service at least every 15 minutes, if not more often, running earlier in the day and later in the evening.
By comparison, it costs $3 million to $4 million to operate the existing Route 1, which runs every 15 to 20 minutes and is one of the bus agency’s most popular routes.
Officials are hoping to use revenue from Hillsborough’s one-cent transportation sales tax, approved by voters in November 2018, to help build and operate the project. Nearly half of the tax money is designated for transit use.
But lawsuits filed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White and resident Bob Emerson have challenged the validity of the tax. Its future will be decided by the Florida Supreme Court next year.