For years, the Tampa Bay region has been stuck in a prolonged transit fight: bus vs. rail.
The form of transit is beside the point, said Art Guzzetti, vice president of the American Public Transportation Association.
"That's not the problem," he said. "The problem is dealing with road traffic and creating a regional mobility strategy."
The latest solution to that problem is bus rapid transit, also known as BRT. Local planners have set rail aside for now and are pursuing a 41-mile rapic bus route as a potential answer to Tampa Bay's transportation woes.
Political and business leaders alike hope the three-county BRT line will provide a quicker, more reliable alternative to being trapped in highway traffic. National experts say the service will need to be fast and frequent, and connect stations primed for development around them.
"We do see the watering down of projects as they go through the process," said Michael Kodransky with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. "We see continued confusion over what is actual BRT and what equals improved bus service."
That's why project supporters such as Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans have turned to a list of BRT standards developed by the institute guidance. Because BRT can look so different from city to city, ITDP developed the standards as a tool to evaluate the quality of different systems.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Learn how bus rapid transit (and rail) could work in Tampa Bay (Jan. 19, 2018)
The proposed Tampa Bay BRT line includes 17 stops and would link Wesley Chapel, the University of South Florida, Tampa and St. Petersburg. Buses would have their own lane for a majority of that route, but what constitutes a dedicated lane would change based on each segment.
For example, the buses would travel in the managed toll lanes planned for the new Howard Frankland Bridge, set to open in 2024. Or they could bypass traffic and use a reinforced shoulder of Interstate 275 between St. Petersburg and the Gateway area, or again near USF.
The only segment where planners are currently discussing building a new, separate lane is in the median of I-275 between the West Shore district and downtown Tampa. That's the same corridor where many transit advocates had hoped to see light rail one day.
Guzzetti said there's not a one-size-fits-all solution for BRT. Most BRT lines vary greatly between cities, with leaders picking and choosing what factors work best for their communities: building new lanes, making use of existing lanes, adding signal prioritization to let buses coast through lights, or using a dozen other options to create a robust system.
The local plan to rely on existing asphalt, such as hardened interstate shoulders, isn't an unusual one, Guzzetti said. In fact, it's considered a best practice by transit experts.
"You're taking advantage of the situation you have," Guzzetti said of the shoulders. "That's a smart thing to do."
It's also an easy way to cut costs. Using existing lanes and right of way dramatically reduces the cost of the project, dropping it to about $450 million from a potential $2.6 billion, according to data from a team at Jacobs Engineering that outlined the parameters of the proposed BRT line.
But as for the buses using the managed toll lanes — a solution the Florida Department of Transportation favors that first surfaced with the now-defunct Tampa Bay Express plan — that's a different matter.
A dedicated lane is the ultimate defining characteristic of BRT. And while it can look different depending on where it is, it should not include running buses in managed toll lanes, where they would occupy the same space as cars, motorcycles and other vehicles, at least in the institute's eyes.
"If they're sharing the lane, it's not dedicated," said Kodransky, the director of global and U.S. initiatives for ITDP, "The point is that the bus would get to flow as freely as it would with an underground metro."
Another potential sticking point? Frequency. The proposed system is still in the early stages, but engineers predict buses would run every 15 minutes at peak travel times and every 30 minutes the rest of the day. That's a far cry from the recommendations of ITDP, which suggests buses run at least 8 times an hour or about every seven minutes.
"Twenty minutes is not frequent, even for a regular bus," Kodransky said. "If you're in an urban area, having to wait 10 minutes is pretty terrible."
Well-thought-out stations are also key to a successful line, often helping spark concentrations of development, which transit advocates seek.
The DOT is currently evaluating locations to establish as transit hubs in areas such as Wesley Chapel, USF and the Gateway area. It already has land in West Shore — the current Charley's Steakhouse site — to build a future station for buses and other transit.
Choosing where those stations are and what regions the line connects are keys to the project's success, Kodransky said.
"If you're planning on building something and anticipating ridership will come in the future, there are risks to that," Kodransky said. "Saying, 'Oh, we'll just build a BRT and then people will come?' Well, that could be, but we haven't seen that turn out well."
Proponents of the project say well-established, enhanced stations where people buy tickets in advance and board from platforms with sliding doors, like with a train or on the automated people-movers at Tampa International Airport, will help entice ridership and spur development along the line.
"It's the station that is the magnet," Guzzetti said.
But if leaders really want to incentivize economic growth and development near stations, they can't just put in a transit line and stop there, Guzzetti said.
Investments have to be made in the surrounding areas, along with building a true network that provides people transit options to get from the stations to the next place they need go. Examples could include an extended Tampa Streetcar or circulators running in the Westshore and USF areas.
"You can't look back and say, 'We built the BRT and it didn't spark the development we hoped,'" Guzzetti said. "It's not going to work without the economic activity around it, and how you bring in that activity is part of the magic. BRT is just one of the tools."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.