Tampa Bay transit plan settles on rapid buses with a boost for Pasco

The regional service would run buses on the interstate highway between Wesley Chapel and St. Petersburg
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 Aug. 6, 2021|Updated Aug. 9, 2021

Tampa Bay’s transit planners picked a mid-level investment for their initial rapid bus system, but then added an upgrade that could drive up the initial price by at least a third.

The decision Friday by the directors of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority ended eight months of machinations over a preferred alternative for a 41-mile bus system from Wesley Chapel to Tampa and St. Petersburg. But, it also will likely spur new questions about costs and buy-in from Hillsborough County.

The directors settled on what originally was billed as an $89.7 million plan to build nine stations and to operate buses along a mix of dedicated highway lanes, express lanes across the Howard Frankland Bridge and regular lanes shared with other motorists. Construction prices for various alternatives ranged from $48 million to $206 million.

Staff recommended that mid-range project as a way to try to answer concerns from Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp. She has objected previously to the plan, including a pedestrian catwalk over Interstate 275 at West Shore Boulevard and for her county being billed for dedicated highway lanes north of Bearss Avenue that would primarily benefit Pasco commuters.

The proposal calls for buses to travel in shared highway lanes with other motorists from State Road 56 to Bearss Avenue and again from downtown Tampa to West Shore. Buses would have their own dedicated lanes from between Bearss and downtown and again from the Gateway area to St. Petersburg. They would use express lanes to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge. It also includes building nine passenger stations.

Related: Express buses now favored regional transit option

State and federal aid could account for more than $67 million of the capital costs with the remainder divided among the three counties with Pinellas paying $9.5 million, Hillsborough, $6.6 million and Pasco, $6.3 million. Annual projections are 690,000 riders and operating costs of $7.8 million, also to be divided among the three counties.

Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, however, said it would be difficult to sell her commission on paying for a bus service that didn’t make greater use of dedicated highway lanes.

“What is the benefit of Pasco County residents paying almost the same as Hillsborough, but they’re in mixed traffic? How is that different than any other bus they’re taking now,’’ Starkey said.

She found an ally in Cliff Manuel of Brooksville, who said adding the dedicated lanes north of Bearss Avenue to Pasco was essential to eventually bringing the same service to Hernando County. Widening the highway to add dedicated transit lanes for 10 miles north of Bearss could cost $30 million to $40 million.

“This is supposed to be regional transit, which means we should all pay. Making Pasco pay for (the dedicated) lane north of Bearss isn’t regional,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.

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

On a 7-0 vote with Kemp absent from the meeting, the board agreed to add dedicated highway lanes north Bearss Avenue, but didn’t spell out how the cost would be shared among the three counties.

Later Friday, Kemp minced no words, calling the board’s actions “irrelevant.”

“They don’t have transit, they don’t have resources and they don’t have jurisdiction,” she said about the regional agency.

She said Hillsborough would continue to pursue its own bus rapid transit plans serving a Nebraska Avenue corridor linking downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida.

The regional project, which still needs additional studies and refined cost estimates, will follow the state Department of Transportation’s timelines for planned improvements to I-275. The rapid transit buses aren’t expected to be running until 2030.