TAMPA — The region's vision for a tri-county bus rapid transit line has a problem: Hillsborough's die-hard transit advocates don't support it.
Brian Willis, one of the region's most vociferous transit supporters, said the 41-mile bus line connecting Wesley Chapel, Tampa and St. Petersburg doesn't solve any of Hillsborough's transit problems. It benefits out-of-county commuters, he said, not county residents.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who also chairs the bus authority, is concerned that the project is tied to the interstate instead of extending transit options to local roads and neighborhoods.
And Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat who campaigned on transit needs, has led the charge against the project. Her criticisms range from the number of stops (21 is too many to be effective, she said) to what she called a "predetermined" study was always going to pick BRT.
Hillsborough's pro-transit forces stand alone in their opposition, leaving BRT without a key constituency.
"We have a crying need for local transit in Hillsborough County," Kemp said. "And they want us to put our dollars into this very wasteful project that won't move anybody. This does not make any sense at all."
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Meanwhile Pasco and Pinellas politicians and the region's business community have rallied behind the proposed $455 million BRT plan.
After years of failure, they believe it to be the most realistic transit option Tampa Bay has right now. They have touted it as cost effective, quick-to-build, and a "truly regional" plan.
Scott Pringle of Jacobs Engineering, the consultants who drew up the proposal, said this project also has the best chance to land federal dollars.
"This BRT plan gives us the best chance of success to bring regional transit," Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans said. "We need to act now and make sure that we don't miss our chance and watch another opportunity pass us by."
But longtime transit advocates in Tampa like Willis and transportation marketing consultant Kevin Thurman said the project does little to move people around. Instead, they said it is primarily aimed at serving commuters while ignoring transit pressing needs within each county.
"I don't think using the shoulders of the interstate and then getting on and off the interstate every mile or so is a viable way to spend money," Thurman said of the plan to add dedicated bus lanes to I-275.
"If we're going to spend this extra money, we need to make sure we're getting new riders and creating efficiency."
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The BRT project emerged from a two-year study that set out to identify the top 10 corridors for potential transit lines in Tampa Bay.
A majority of those were Hillsborough centric, using various combinations between West Shore, South Tampa, the University of South Florida and downtown Tampa.
The Wesley Chapel-Tampa-St. Pete BRT option ranked sixth.
But over the last year, options to improve transit within Hillsborough were eschewed for much broader projects that could earn regional buy-in.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Learn how bus rapid transit (and rail) could work in Tampa Bay (Jan. 19, 2018)
Kemp said the result is a proposed solution for the wrong problem. While supporters like Homans praise the three-county connection, Kemp said the real need is for inner-county transportation.
A 2017 travel market memo from an early phase of the study showed 91 percent of home-to-work trips that started in Hillsborough ended there. Similarly, 86 percent of Pinellas' trips start and end within its borders.
Pasco had the largest cross-county commuter numbers, with more than 40 percent of trips starting at Pasco homes connecting to jobs in Hillsborough and Pinellas.
"Why is Hillsborough going to contribute to a project that is primarily serving commuters elsewhere?" Willis asked. "They want to take our money to fund a commuter express bus service ... when we have our own substantial transit needs to address."
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It's not just Hillsborough's transit boosters who are resisting BRT. The county's elected leadership greeted the project with minimal enthusiasm.
No major Hillsborough board — its transit agency, county commission or even the Metropolitan Planning Organization — has endorsed the project yet.
Instead, elected officials and transit advocates alike are divided over how to address the area's growing transportation concerns.
Commissioners Sandy Murman and Victor Crist called the BRT plan "a reasonable first step" and "a good starting point." But both said projects like ferries, circulators and a streetcar should be added for the plan to succeed.
Both also voted against putting the 2016 Go Hillsborough transportation referendum on the ballot and letting voters decide whether to pay for transportation improvements.
Commissioners Ken Hagan, Al Higginbotham and Stacy White did not return calls for comment to discuss their views of the plan. Hagan and Higginbotham both voted to put Go Hillsborough on the ballot. White did not.
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Kemp was elected to the county commission seven months after the Go Hillsborough referendum fell apart.
But she isn't giving up on rail. She's pushing for a more-detailed analysis of the urban rail option using the existing CSX tracks from South Tampa to downtown to USF.
Tampa Bay leaders have batted about the idea of building mass transit on CSX lines since 1970s. Time and time again, those plans stalled or fell apart. The idea gained traction again three years ago when CSX officials said they were open to selling the lines. That still seems to be on the table.
However, Kemp said she has been discouraged from asking questions about CSX during regional transportation meetings. The focus, instead, is placed on a "catalyst project" for the region: BRT.
She questions that conventional wisdom.
"We have so few transit dollars, we really need to start investing them carefully and thoughtfully," Kemp said. "I'd hate to get stuck in this place where we don't move forward again because they've come up with another poor project that no one supports."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.