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Hillsborough roadblocks continue for Tampa Bay rapid transit plan

A study says buses could run as frequently as every 7.5 minutes; one commissioner says do the math again.
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 Feb. 21

Electric buses, operating 16 hours a day, could run as frequently as every 7.5 minutes in some locations along a 41-mile corridor from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg.

Or, the calculated travel times could be off because the study, presented last week to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, conflicts with the long-term transportation plans of Hillsborough County, officials said.

In what has become a repetitive debate, members of the authority’s governing board pushed ahead Friday with a study of so-called regional rapid transit — higher-speed buses mostly traveling along Interstate 275 — over the objections of Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp and Commission Chairwoman Kimberly Overman.

“Truth is, if Hillsborough County doesn’t support this project, it’ll never happen,” warned David Gwynn, regional transportation secretary for the state of Florida.

Hillsborough County’s long-term transportation plan does not include widening I-275 north of Hillsborough Avenue. The authority’s regional rapid transit plan, however, calls for buses to travel on new highway lanes dedicated to mass transit all the way to Pasco County.

“It’s misleading,” Kemp said about the study’s statement that vehicles would travel in dedicated lanes north of the city of Tampa.

Others noted the ongoing study by WSP Engineering simply follows the preferred alternative approved by the transit authority’s board in August 2021. Kemp did not attend that meeting, and Overman did not join the board until October.

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

But Overman said the travel time assumptions wouldn’t be accurate if the study presumed the dedicated highway lanes would be built outside the existing footprint of I-275.

Those assumptions called for 22 vehicles stopping at nine new street-level stations along four routes each day. The vehicles would travel in dedicated freeway lanes in Pasco, Pinellas and the portion of I-275 north of Tampa, using express lanes to cross the Howard Frankland Bridge and traveling in mixed traffic between downtown Tampa and Westshore.

The four routes are:

  • State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel to Westshore, leaving every 15 minutes during peak times. It would include hourly service to Tampa International Airport.
  • Wesley Chapel to the University of South Florida during off-peak times.
  • University of South Florida to Westshore and the airport, also during off-peak hours.
  • Downtown St. Petersburg to Tampa, starting at Fourth Street in St. Petersburg with stops at the Tropicana Field area, 54th Avenue in Pinellas Park, Gateway, Tampa International Airport, Westshore and finally downtown Tampa.

Some routes — those leaving Wesley Chapel, for instance — overlap in some locations, which lowers the time between buses to as little as 7.5 minutes.

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

The study estimated annual operating costs at $7.5 million based on using hybrid buses running on diesel and electricity. Kemp and Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, however, favored all battery-powered electric buses that would cost more upfront, but could have lower operating and maintenance expenses.

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The board, which lacked a quorum, made no decision on what type of buses to use. If the project, as proposed, comes to fruition, it is not expected to be operational before 2030.

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