Regional transit plan still stuck in neutral

How to serve a 41-mile bus route from Pasco to St. Petersburg remains unanswered
A rendering from WSP Engineering shows what a potential neighborhood station could look like for a 41-mile bus 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 line connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. [ WSP Engineering ]
Published May 21, 2021|Updated May 21, 2021

Plans for regional bus service connecting Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg remained stalled Friday even as the five-county transit agency unveiled a new alternative, shifting more of the costs away from local governments.

The Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority had been scheduled to officially pick its preferred alternative on how to serve a 41-mile route with the proposals ranging from express buses sharing highway lanes with other vehicles to so-called bus rapid transit, with buses running on designated shoulders of the interstates.

But the board lacked an in-person quorum Friday to vote on the four alternatives under consideration. It does not meet again until July.

A month ago, there was near unanimous support for the least-expensive alternative to run express buses, now projected to cost $48 million, on traditional highway lanes. It would include building six passenger stations.

Related: Express bus plan from Pasco to St. Petersburg now favored regional transit option

Only Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp objected then, saying the express buses would duplicate existing services from the county’s own system, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, known commonly by the acronym HART.

The near unity split in different directions Friday. Some board members offered support for a new alternative, while Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey advocated for a more ambitious and expensive plan, and Manatee Commissioner Reggie Bellamy was ambivalent on the specifics but urged the board to move a plan forward to minimize the potential for escalating construction costs.

The new plan, projected to cost nearly $90 million, includes building nine passenger stations — four in Pinellas, three in Hillsborough and two in Pasco — with the capital costs for the three counties amounting to $22.4 million. The buses would run on a mix of shared lanes, dedicated highway shoulders and express lanes, making it eligible for up to 75 percent of its capital funding from the federal and state governments,

The express bus plan does not meet federal aid guidelines and would require the three counties to absorb a combined $42 million to build the stations and buy buses.

Kemp renewed her concerns, noting only 5 percent of the Hillsborough riders would actually use the buses to travel outside of the county. Meanwhile all of the Pasco riders and roughly half of the Pinellas passengers would come into Hillsborough for employment or other purposes.

“This isn’t really a benefit,” said Kemp. “We’re doing all this ridership with HART already.”

She also noted the potential ridership numbers are smaller than Hillsborough’s existing service. The newest alternative is projected to carry 670,000 riders annually by 2045. A half-dozen of the Hillsborough’s existing routes accounted for approximately 500,000 combined monthly riders prior to the pandemic.

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But board member Richard McClain, representing the Hillsborough transit authority, said the pipeline from Pinellas and Pasco to Tampa employment hubs should be construed as an asset.

“What I see there is commerce. I see people coming into Hillsborough County to work, I see people coming in Hillsborough to shop and dine. I see that as a boon, not as a detractor.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Cliff Manuel from Brooksville both offered support for the new alternative as well.

Starkey pointed to the Biden administration’s stated plans to invest heavily in infrastructure and pitched the $207 million alternative requiring construction of more dedicated lanes to keep buses from having to share space with other motorists.

“I say let’s swing for the fences,” she said.

After the board decides on its preferred alternative, service is not expected to be available until 2030.