Tampa Bay’s transit authority is switching gears on its regional bus transportation plans, but a smooth ride to completing the 41-mile route remained elusive Friday.
Absent a formal vote, the majority of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority directors endorsed an alternative to build six stations and run express buses on Interstate 275 from Pasco County to downtown Tampa and on to St. Petersburg. Three months ago, the agency’s staff recommended a more ambitious project, called bus rapid transit, to build as many as 13 stations and run vehicles along dedicated highway lanes as the preferred alternative.
The express bus plan is less costly, but also would draw fewer riders than the bus rapid transit plan. The alternative failed to sway the leading critic — Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp. She repeated her prior objections, saying the regional transit plan would compete with existing bus agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for passengers and future federal subsidies.
“It’s a duplication. It’s a competition with our routes,” Kemp told the authority.
She also criticized the plan, prepared by engineering consultants WSP Engineering, for not including projections on operating costs, nor information about its viability if I-275 isn’t widened. The state Department of Transportation’s plans to widen I-275, but citizen objectors are advocating instead for an expanded street grid system and a north-south boulevard.
Kemp, however, found herself with little support from other board members who backed the express bus plan that could be modified in the future to accommodate bus rapid transit.
“If (express bus plan) gets us moving, then let’s get moving, said Cliff Manuel of Brooksville. “I don’t see it as an end game.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he long favored bus rapid transit, but would support the express bus plan as a compromise and because it could be altered in the future.
“The reality, though, is ... that if we’re not all onboard, it isn’t going to happen,” said Kriseman.
Hillsborough County has the largest population of the authority’s member counties that also include Pinellas, Manatee, Pasco and Hernando. Its support is considered vital to seeking future federal aid.
Under the scenarios considered by the authority, bus rapid transit — a system that uses dedicated lanes, fewer stops and quicker boarding — could cost up to nearly $400 million for 13 stations, right of way, vehicles and parking. Building just six stations would drop the cost to $289 million. It could receive up to 50 percent funding from the state and federal governments.
Express buses, using the same highway lanes as other motorists, would cost $53.4 million for six stations, but would not qualify for federal aid and local dollars would have to account for nearly 90 percent of the capital cost.
Ridership forecasts for 2030, when the service is expected to be available, called for 250,000 annual passengers on the express buses and 909,000 on the bus rapid transit system.
Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long asked the consultants to study two other scenarios that would have buses traveling on hardened shoulders of the interstate. Those plans and a vote on whether to proceed with the express bus route are scheduled for May 24.