Hillsborough County cries foul over Fowler Avenue transit plans

Rebuilt, it could be a gateway to its innovation district, but where do you run the buses?
Pedestrians cross Fowler Avenue at 22nd Street in Tampa.  The state will start design and engineering work next year on a planned rebuild of East Fowler Avenue that will look at pedestrian and bicycle safety, intersection improvements and other changes. Where to put dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit remains in question.
Pedestrians cross Fowler Avenue at 22nd Street in Tampa. The state will start design and engineering work next year on a planned rebuild of East Fowler Avenue that will look at pedestrian and bicycle safety, intersection improvements and other changes. Where to put dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit remains in question. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES ]
Published Nov. 24, 2021|Updated Nov. 25, 2021

TAMPA — Head east down Fowler Avenue from Interstate 275 and one of the first buildings visible on the north side of the street is a value motel. The sign says Regency Inn, but the bright orange A-frame roof hints at the motel’s past as a Howard Johnson franchise.

It’s a similar story for this stretch of Fowler Avenue — things aren’t what they used to be.

“This used to be a very rural area, and then it became suburban,” said Rob Rosner, director of economic opportunity for the city of Tampa. “The corridor has become the epitome of suburbia.”

And now?

“The urban edge is reaching out to it,” said Rosner. “We’re going to start to see the urbanization of a suburban corridor.”

It’s a busy corridor. On some days, 50,000 vehicles travel Fowler Avenue at 15th Street. The road includes eight lanes of asphalt with sidewalks and bike lanes and runs 6.2 miles between Interstates 275 and 75, linking Tampa, Temple Terrace and unincorporated Hillsborough County.

It serves as the gateway to the University of South Florida, the Museum of Science and Industry property and Rithm at Uptown — the former University Mall site being redeveloped as a mixed-use center for innovative businesses that serves as one of the focal points for the Tampa Innovation Partnership.

The road’s commercial district includes the suburban staples of Starbucks and Five Guys as well as a variety of typical interstate exit fast-food choices, multiple pawn shops and vacant retail spots buffered by linear concrete with little shade.

The challenge for elected and appointed government leaders is trying to match plans for transportation, land use, trails, transit and pedestrian walkways into a cohesive strategy for what is envisioned as a new-look Fowler Avenue to be built in the next several years.

There could be so-called transit-oriented development of higher density housing near functional bus stops where riders can board rapid-transit vehicles for a quicker commute to downtown. There could be grass and tree-lined strips and comfortable benches separating sidewalk from street and safer paths for bicyclists and walkers.

“This is a real opportunity to turn that into a vibrant boulevard,” said Eddie Burch, communications coordinator for Tampa Innovation Partnership. Better transit and safer routes for bicyclists and pedestrians, he said, “will turn that corridor into an economic development dynamo.”

“It has the potential to be transformational,” agreed Beth Alden, director of the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.

But a bump in the road emerged earlier this month when the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization learned nearly simultaneous studies from different agencies are considering separate transit ideas.

Try selling property owners on pretty conceptual drawings if you can’t agree on where to run the buses.

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Related: Five things to know about bus rapid transit

A $2.5 million study, financed with state money and commissioned by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, is focusing on using Fowler Avenue’s center medians for its proposed bus rapid transit service to connect the USF campus to downtown. That recommendation is expected to be presented to the authority’s board of directors early next year.

Meanwhile, a $1.2 million state Department of Transportation design and engineering study of proposed changes to Fowler Avenue, between Florida Avenue and 56th Street, is scheduled to begin in the spring. The state’s earlier feasibility study said the buses also could travel on the outside lanes nearest to the sidewalks via frontage lanes and on what are called business access and transit lanes that also accommodate other vehicles seeking to make right-hand turns.

Related: Bus rapid transit connecting Tampa and USF could cut travel time in half

If the transit authority has settled on a preference, why would the state consider something else, asked Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

“I don’t like paying for things twice,” she said.

“I don’t understand why we’re even looking at other alternatives,” Overman said. “That’s completely incongruent with what our transit needs are. Start with what transit needs. Otherwise, we’re just resurfacing a road and leaving (the transit authority) without an alternative.”

A decision on which side of the street to put the bus lanes might seem inconsequential to transit riders, but it will determine long-term construction costs in terms of buying right of way and accommodating pedestrian safety.

Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the state’s regional transportation department, said the upcoming design and engineering study will consider aspects beyond accommodating transit to also include safety and bicycle and pedestrian travel requirements.

“The median-running option may be preferred from a transit operation standpoint, but it is also more costly for (the authority) to implement and operate. It could also be more disruptive to Fowler’s overall operation and hence may not be preferred by other stakeholders,” Carson said.

Ron Barton, Hillsborough’s assistant county administrator, said different viewpoints can be attributable to the missions of different agencies.

The transit authority’s “objective is to run an efficient and effective transit system,” said Barton, while the state transportation department’s “primary objective — don’t fool yourself — is still to move cars.”

More formalized coordination, including interlocal agreements among the city, county, transportation planning organization and the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission, could help smooth out future details, he said.

“It’s all solvable,” said Barton. “It’s not a bad thing.”