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Tampa Bay riders to wait 10 years for regional bus transit line

The 41-mile route would run almost entirely along Interstate 275 and connect Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
A rendering from WSP Engineering shows what a potential neighborhood station could look like for a 41-mile bus rapid transit line connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
A rendering from WSP Engineering shows what a potential neighborhood station could look like for a 41-mile bus rapid transit line connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. [ WSP Engineering ]
Published Jan. 22

New details emerged Friday on what locations a regional bus rapid transit line would connect and where it would make its stops, but some officials were disappointed to hear that it will likely be a decade before anyone can ride it.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority listened to a presentation Friday morning about a 41-mile transit line that has been in the works for at least four years. The project is expected to cost $353 million to build, including stations, right of way, vehicles and parking. The goal is to get federal money to help cover those costs.

The regional transit project aims to connect Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties with fast, reliable transit service. Early discussions included light rail and commuter rail options before the decision was made to go with bus rapid transit — a type of bus route that uses dedicated lanes, fewer stops and quicker boarding.

Scott Pringle, a transportation planner at WSP Engineering, gave the presentation, which included details on each of the 13 proposed stations.

In the design planners are currently supporting, the bus would have its own dedicated lane for 31 of the 41 miles. Almost the entire route runs along Interstate 275. Estimated travel times show 46 minutes to connect from downtown St. Petersburg to Tampa or 37 minutes from Pasco to downtown Tampa.

Related: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

Approximately 5,400 riders are expected daily, though TBARTA board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp pointed out that much of the regional route overlaps with existing local bus service. Kemp, who has long criticized the project, expects the regional bus rapid transit line would be competing with existing transit options for riders and would not be compelling enough to entice new passengers.

“The project doesn’t make any sense to me still,” Kemp said. “It’s really competing with our local routes, but on the expressway where many people won’t use it.”

Related: Tampa Bay's transit future: Light rail's out. Rapid buses are in.

But Pringle said those stops have been selected after four years of study, based on potential ridership and nearby jobs and homes.

There are three kinds of proposed stops: intermodal, neighborhood or in-line.

The five intermodal stations are already defined by the Florida Department of Transportation as spaces where multiple travel options can link together, including local and express buses, bike shares, ride shares, and future options like light rail or Brightline commuter rail. Those would be at State Road 56 in Pasco, near the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa, Westshore and the Gateway area.

A map shown in a presentation by WSP Engineering shows the 13 stops a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit line would make.
A map shown in a presentation by WSP Engineering shows the 13 stops a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit line would make. [ WSP Engineering ]

Of the other eight stops, seven would be neighborhood stations, where the bus exits the interstate. These are expected to be at street level, a block or two from the interstate, and easily accessible by local transit, walking and biking, Pringle said.

These are proposed for State Road 54 in Pasco, near The Grove; the southeast corner of Bearss and Nebraska Avenues; Seminole Heights near the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and Florida Avenue; the Himes Avenue area, near Spruce Street and Dale Mabry Highway; and the 62nd Avenue North area, near the intersection of Haines Road and 54th Avenue North.

Related: Construction begins on SunRunner, first bus rapid transit line in Tampa Bay

The bus is then expected to leave the interstate in St. Petersburg and share the transit corridor currently under construction for the SunRunner, St. Petersburg’s 10-mile bus rapid transit line connecting downtown and the beaches. The regional line would make two neighborhood stops in that corridor at Tropicana Field and downtown near 4th Street.

There are two in-line stations throughout the route. One would be adjacent to the interstate between Waters Avenue and Bird Street. The bus would not exit the highway, and instead a station would be built next to 275. Passengers could then take stairs or an escalator or elevator to exit at street level.

A similar set-up is expected for the multimodal center in the Westshore area. Because the bus would be running in the median of the highway, it wouldn’t be as easy or quick for it to exit. Instead, there would be a boarding platform in the median and a walkway that goes over the highway and connects to the station on the side of the interstate.

A rendering from a presentation by WSP Engineering shows what a transit station next to Interstate 275 could look like. The stations would serve a 41-mile bus rapid transit line connecting Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
A rendering from a presentation by WSP Engineering shows what a transit station next to Interstate 275 could look like. The stations would serve a 41-mile bus rapid transit line connecting Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. [ WSP Engineering ]

“We actually even have the opportunity for potential first-floor retail to serve those patrons and make sure they have the amenities they need to continue to want to come back and use the service,” Pringle said.

Kemp again criticized this approach.

“We’ve turned it into this crazy project that has elevated stations,” Kemp said. “To think at Westshore that people are going to walk across I-275 there at a catwalk to take the bus?”

But others on the TBARTA board shared excitement over the project, including Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.

“The sooner the better, if we get started,” Long said. “I would encourage us to posthaste begin ASAP.”

Starkey suggested hosting one large discussion in the region with elected officials, transportation planners and county representatives

“We have to start somewhere,” Starkey said. “I believe we have a good plan and I’d like to see it come to fruition.”