The Florida Department of Transportation says it has a back-up plan to create a dedicated lane for bus rapid transit on the new Howard Frankland Bridge in case the current plan for BRT doesn’t work out.
A draft request for proposals to design and build the new bridge says each span will have four lanes of traffic, two express toll lanes and a bike and pedestrian trail.
It also said BRT would have to share the toll lanes with other paying motorists — putting those bus riders at risk of getting stuck in traffic just like anyone else trying to cross Tampa Bay’s busiest bridge.
But a department spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times that if BRT doesn’t work as planned in the toll lanes the agency has a contingency plan:
"If the express lanes are unable to provide reliable travel times for transit in the future, FDOT can restripe the bridge and shift lanes to provide for dedicated BRT operations on the shoulder," said a statement the agency sent to the Times.
Creating a shoulder lane for BRT would not take away from any other lanes on the new Howard Frankland, according to the state.
Much of the proposed 41-mile regional BRT plan depends on using the shoulder of Insterstate 275 to connect St. Petersburg, Tampa, the University of South Florida and Pasco County.
But when it comes to linking BRT across the bay, FDOT believes it doesn’t need to use the shoulder of the bridge to do so efficiently.
"We have offered the shoulders for transit use on other areas of the interstate where reliable travel times cannot be provided," said the FDOT statement. "However, we prefer not to use shoulders for bus lanes where other options are available."
The other option are the two express toll lanes. The state said it is confident that plan for accommodating the proposed transit system on the bridge will work.
FDOT said it is placing "BRT operations in the express lanes because traffic projections show that we will be able to provide reliable travel times in the express lanes."
The real issue facing the Howard Frankland replacement and BRT, however, is that one project is ready to be built while the other is still being conceived.
The Howard Frankland replacement project is a complicated plan for replacing the oldest span of the bridge by building a third span, reconfiguring the two newest spans and then tearing down the old one.
The north span of the Howard Frankland must soon come down. It is the original bridge, built in 1960, and has reached the end of its lifespan.
The current southbound span was built in 1990. The state plans to start building a new span in 2020 with the goal of finishing by 2024. The traffic patterns of the two newest spans would be adjusted, and the oldest span will eventually be demolished.
The RFP for the Howard Frankland will be advertised on Dec. 10. It is scheduled to be awarded in 2019 and it will be the largest contract in the history of DOT’s local Tampa Bay office: $814 million.
BRT, on the other hand, is a years away from being vetted, funded or approved.
But do rapid busses need their own lane to cross the bridge? Supporters of BRT are divided over that question.
Forward Pinellas Executive Director Whit Blanton said it’s not necessary and that the state’s plan to use toll roads "makes a ton of sense to me."
However, Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans has said that the ability to cross the bay without getting stuck in traffic will be a key part of building a regional transit system.
"We can’t afford to have the BRT congested and stalled getting between St. Pete and Tampa," he told the Times earlier this month.
In its statement to the Times, FDOT included two interesting words for the future of regional transit: "light rail."
That particular passage reads as follows:
"The current plans for the Howard Frankland Bridge include flexibility for various modes of transit. We have invested in making the structure strong enough to support light rail if the community chooses to implement that mode in the future."
Attempts to fund light rail have already failed twice: Hillsborough voters defeated a sales tax referendum in 2010 and Pinellas voters did the same in 2014.
The Hillsborough County Commission was so skittish that it wouldn’t even let voters choose in 2016, deciding not to put a 30-year, half-cent sales tax on the ballot that year.
However, state officials have said in the past that if Pinellas and Hillsborough were to someday build mass transit systems, that it would help link them across the bay.
Hillsborough’s next attempt to fund mass transit will be in the fall: The citizen’s group All for Transportation collected more than 49,000 signatures to put another transit referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Voters will be asked to approve raising the sales tax by a penny for 30 years to expand bus service, build a mass transit system and pay for road improvements that would benefit bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists alike.
Staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report. Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.