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Breakdown lanes may help Pinellas buses give cold shoulder to traffic

A Chicago bus bypasses traffic while using the shoulder of the highway. FDOT is considering a similar measure here in Pinellas that would allow buses to travel along the shoulder when traffic is below 35 mph. [Courtesy of PACE]
A Chicago bus bypasses traffic while using the shoulder of the highway. FDOT is considering a similar measure here in Pinellas that would allow buses to travel along the shoulder when traffic is below 35 mph. [Courtesy of PACE]
Published Nov. 12, 2015

Pinellas County buses might soon bypass congestion by driving along the shoulder of Interstate 275, a time-saving maneuver not available to every other motorist stuck in traffic.

Though it seems like an off-beat concept, it's a real thing that has been used in Minneapolis, Chicago, Miami and other cities across the country.

The Florida Department of Transportation is considering a similar system here, said Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development. FDOT is conducting a study to evaluate whether the roadways would be a good fit.

Currently, the option is only being considered for parts of I-275 in Pinellas County. But the Metropolitan Planning Organization previously toyed with the concept along U.S. 19, said its executive director, Whit Blanton. It's also a solution that could work on roadways such as Gandy Boulevard.

"It's not an ideal solution, but it's a relatively low-cost transportation option that enhances travel time competitiveness," Blanton said. "It makes bus service more competitive with auto."

If approved, buses could travel along "breakdown lanes" of a specific route any time traffic dips below 35 mph.

Shoulders need to be at least 10-feet wide. That's part of what FDOT's study is evaluating. It also requires approval from state lawmakers for buses to use space that's now reserved for ambulances, police cars and tow trucks.

Chicago's transit system, PACE, adopted shoulders as routes back in 2011. Certain areas were clamoring for better transportation, but there wasn't a good rail line that connected those suburbs to the city, said PACE deputy executive director Rocky Donahue.

"As opposed to building a new rail line, we could use existing infrastructure," Donahue said. "It would take very little money to get this up and running."

The idea received pushback from law enforcement and politicians when it was first floated. Talk radio programs cracked jokes and raised safety concerns. Some politicians questioned what would happen if there was a disabled vehicle in the shoulder or if other cars attempted to follow the bus.

"It's a concept people didn't understand: Why would a bus be on a shoulder of the highway?" Donahue said. "It came down to highway engineers didn't understand transit and viewed the shoulder as something you don't run buses down."

But after four years, ridership on those lines jumped more than 400 percent. Buses arriving on time rose from 68 percent to 93 percent. Perception of buses changed, and PACE soon saw an uptick in people choosing to forgo their cars and take the bus.

"The riders for the most part aren't the typical PACE demographic riders," Donahue said. "They're far and away choice riders who see this as a premium service."

Under PACE guidelines, buses cannot not travel faster than 15 mph above the existing rate of traffic and not in excess of 35 mph. So if traffic had slowed to a crawl at 10 mph, a bus could hop to the shoulder and speed by at a rate of 25 mph. That might not seem like a big difference, Donahue said, but even 15 mph is an improvement when traffic is at a standstill.

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The buses themselves offer amenities not found on a typical city bus, Donahue said. Wi-Fi. Reclining seats. Air conditioning. The idea is to create a comfortable experience that lures more riders.

"We branded it from the beginning as a very upscale service," Donahue said. "We wanted it to be thought of as similar to or competitive with a train ride versus a typical bus."

That doesn't mean it's the perfect solution, though. FDOT considers it an intermediate option, a Band-Aid of sorts until the Tampa Bay region is able to develop a more substantial transit system.

"With Greenlight Pinellas not moving forward, then other options need to be pursued," Hunt said. "Transit is viable in Pinellas County, we just need to look at how to keep providing and promoting it."

While PACE touted buses along the shoulder as similar to a rail line — it allows transit to travel outside of the normal traffic pattern and has a more comfortable ride — Blanton cautioned against becoming too enamored with the option.

"It makes things marginally better, but it's not going to be a shiny new thing," Blanton said. "It's not going to induce development. It's really more of a stop-gap, a recognition that we need something better for regional transportation, but we're not ready to spend the money on the ultimate solution."

Blanton sees it more like a short-term strategy of no more than 10 years. Ideally, buses would be able to operate in a managed lane, free from tolls.

Buses traveling along the shoulders complements the Tampa Bay Express managed toll lanes considered in Hillsborough. While part of that program extends to Pinellas, it leaves out large chunks of I-275. That's where buses along the shoulder comes in, Hunt said.

"For whatever improvements we're doing regionally, transit should be considered a top priority," Blanton said. "Not a back-bench, secondary option."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.