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FDOT considers transit, other options for improving Fowler Avenue in USF area

Fowler Avenue is a main corridor in the university area and could see changes in the future, perhaps even elevated lanes. [LENORA LAKE   |   Special to the Times]
Fowler Avenue is a main corridor in the university area and could see changes in the future, perhaps even elevated lanes. [LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times]
Published Nov. 24, 2017

TAMPA — A new study eventually could lead to better traffic flow on Fowler Avenue while offering a variety of transportation options.

The $500,000 study, to take up to 18 months, focuses on the University Area and the University of South Florida. It is one part of a plan to look at "how people move" in Hillsborough County, said Ed McKinney, district planning and environmental administrator for the Florida Department of Transportation.

"We came to the realization we had to look at everything, transit, local streets, local connectors," said McKinney, describing the plan that became known as Tampa Bay Next — an effort to modernize transportation infrastructure and prepare for the future.

Officials received push-back from neighborhoods affected by earlier plans, known as Tampa Bay Express or TBX, which focused on adding 90 miles of toll roads to Interstates 4, 75 and 275.

For the north Tampa area, the center of focus now is Fowler Avenue, said Ming Gao, modal development administrator with FDOT in Tampa.

Currently, 53,000 cars carrying residents, tourists, employees and students travel on Fowler Avenue each day past the University of South Florida. By 2040, FDOT projects the number will rise to about 80,000 a day, McKinney said.

One consideration that might drive the discussion, he said, is whether USF builds a new football stadium in the area.

"We are looking at planning for a transit spine — where you can connect regional service to local service," he said. "Fowler Avenue is a major corridor."

Those connections could come in many forms, but one idea being explored is creating elevated express lanes on Fowler Avenue to Interstate 75.

The university area already has a number of transportation options including Bull Runner buses for USF students and shuttles for hospital employees who park off-site.

"We want to make things more efficient as transportation is not coordinated now," Ming said.

The dense population in the area also is conducive to transit use, Gao said.

But currently, most bus riders there have no other transportation options. "What we have to do is have choice riders," McKinney said.

They might include people staying at the hotel on campus, Gao said: "We need to show people staying at Embassy Suites that they don't need to drive their car to Busch Gardens."

Tampa Bay Next also is working with the nonprofit !P: Potential Unleashed, headed by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. The organization seeks to create a North Tampa innovation district where people work, play, study and stay.

Sharpe said he supports plans to enhance Fowler Avenue and the transit options.

"We are partnering with the state and other agencies to explore the complete transformation of Fowler Avenue from what it is today, to what we intend it to become — a livable, walkable, bike friendly, transit oriented, business friendly corridor," Sharpe said.

Clarence Eng, a member of !P's advisory board who is heading the organization's involvement in the project, said transportation options are "critical to supporting the vitality of our economic centers, innovation districts and the region."

McKinney said public stakeholder meetings and workshops will be scheduled. He also is speaking to groups including the University Area Community Development Corp. Partners Coalition.

Many obstacles remain, McKinney said, including site selections for connection points, environmental studies, coordination between the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County — one side of Fowler Avenue lies in each — and funding.

"Everything around this area is growing and changing," he said. "Technology must play a role in connecting all of it, too."

So when might people get to use the new transportation options envisioned for the area?

"I couldn't see anything happening for 10 years or so," McKinney said. "But that could change if things change, like USF getting a stadium on campus."

Contact Lenora Lake at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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