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Is there a reboot coming for Hillsborough-Pasco rapid transit route?

Continued debate over expanding I-275 could send transit vehicles to Veterans Expressway, state official says
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 Dec. 23, 2021

A long-discussed transit line linking Wesley Chapel to downtown Tampa could be headed for a different route.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority’s proposed bus rapid transit service along Interstate 275 continues to meet resistance in Hillsborough County, threatening the agency’s ability to obtain federal grants for the estimated $150 million construction cost.

David Gwynn, the state’s regional transportation secretary, recently acknowledged a potential bypass — run the buses from Tampa to Pasco County via express lanes on the Veterans Expressway. He characterized it to the authority’s board members as the “fall back position.”

The idea earned a green light from some Hillsborough commissioners.

“Go for it,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp, the leading critic of the agency’s bus rapid transit plan.

“I think that’s a brilliant idea,” said Hillsborough Commission Chairperson Kimberly Overman, who joined the transit authority’s board in October.

Would that still be beneficial for Pasco County?

“Yes, I think so,” said Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.

Since its inception in 2007, the regional transit agency has studied how to serve commuters seeking to travel between Pasco County and Tampa. In its first incarnation, the seven-county Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority suggested connecting the Wiregrass Ranch area north of State Road 56 to the University of South Florida campus on Fowler Avenue via light rail or bus rapid transit running along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

At the time, Bruce B. Downs Boulevard traffic already was over capacity, and Wesley Chapel was poised for an economic boom with a state college campus, mall and hospital among the projects in the works.

But mass transit ran into multiple stop signs. Hillsborough voters turned down a sales tax for transportation in November 2010. Pinellas County voters did likewise in 2014 and, in between, Gov. Rick Scott deflated public momentum for rail service when he rejected $2.4 billion in federal aid to build a high-speed rail line serving Tampa.

By 2017, the state Legislature rebranded the agency as the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority — known commonly by the acronym TBARTA — shrunk its membership to five counties plus Tampa and St. Petersburg, and tasked it with devising a regional transit option. A top focus now is developing a 41-mile bus rapid transit system between Wesley Chapel and the downtowns of Tampa and St,. Petersburg.

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

In August, the agency’s board of directors picked what it called its preferred alternative: building nine passenger stations and operating buses along a mix of dedicated highway, express and shared lanes on I-275. To ensure buy-in from Pasco, the board agreed to add tens of millions of dollars worth of dedicated highway lanes north of Bearss Avenue to Wesley Chapel so the buses wouldn’t get stuck sharing general purpose lanes with other motorists.

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The proposal didn’t get buy-in from Hillsborough, however. Kemp has called the overall plan an unnecessary duplication of what local bus agencies could do if they had more funding. And, in June, Kemp and a majority of Hillsborough’s Transportation Planning Organization, leery of expanding I-275 through Tampa’s urban neighborhoods, reworked its long-range transportation document and scrapped plans for new lanes on the highway north of Hillsborough Avenue.

It means the state Department of Transportation can’t legally widen the highway to accommodate automobile traffic, increasing the cost of adding hardened shoulders just for the bus rapid transit vehicles.

“That hurts and it drives the cost per rider up. And it creates a much more difficult project to fund,” said Gwynn.

The implications go beyond dollars and cents to whether the project even continues to make sense.

“It’s not just a matter of funding. It would also mean that the bus would have to be in the general purpose lanes. If it’s in general purpose lanes, that’s going to affect the bus travel time, which affects the ridership you’re going to get. Which affects how effective this project is,” said Brian Pessaro, the transit agency’s principal planner.

“It could be the decision to force the bus into mixed traffic means that you really don’t have an effective project anymore. You’ve kind of shot yourself in the foot.”

And, without the 10 miles of dedicated lanes to serve commuters to and from Wesley Chapel, Pasco’s future participation is in doubt.

“It takes us out for sure,” Starkey said.

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

The future of the service from St. Petersburg to Tampa is more clear, with the potential for buses to be running on the expanded Howard Frankland Bridge’s express lanes in as soon as four years, said Gwynn.

For the time being, the transit authority is continuing its required environmental study of the I-275 route as a precursor to submitting its grant application to the Federal Transit Administration.

“The (Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg) route we’re studying is what it is. We’re not going to change that at all,” said David Green, the authority’s executive director. “There is no plan B for the regional (bus rapid transit) at this point.”

But, he acknowledged, continued resistance in Hillsborough County could mean the project doesn’t advance beyond the study stage.

“It’s up to the counties. The project is for the counties and the residents. If they don’t want it then there’s nothing to put in place,” said Green.

And if that happens, Green said, maybe then the authority will have to consider a plan B, “but we’re not there yet.”

Routing service along the Veterans Expressway takes it west of bustling Wesley Chapel but directs it to the fast-growing Odessa and Land O’ Lakes areas at State Road 54 and toward the nearly 800-acre campus that H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute plans for central Pasco.

It also aims it closer to the population base of Hernando if the service expands northward in the future.

“The majority of Spring Hill, which is the majority of our population, is probably going to want something along the Veterans (rather than I-275),” said Hernando Commissioner Jeff Holcomb.

An estimated 1.5 million people in the region cross county lines to work, the transit authority said, quoting prepandemic data. The proposed bus rapid transit service along I-275 carried projections of 690,000 annual riders and operating costs of $7.8 million.

Kemp said the state of Florida should handle the operating expenses. The initial feasibility study said the costs could be shared among Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

“That’s the million-dollar question, figuring out how are we going to fund the operation,” said Pessaro, the transit authority planner. “I can’t give you an answer for that. We still have to figure that out.”

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