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Tampa Bay Transit: How rapid buses left light rail in the dust

Bus rapid transit, also called BRT, is emerging as the most likely regional transit system that could be built in the Tampa Bay region and supplanting old dreams of light rail. [Courtesy of PTSA]
Published Jan. 12, 2018

Transit leaders have spent years trying to build a transportation system that would span the Tampa Bay region and allow residents to travel from one end of the bay to the other without having to drive across it.

Now they're closer than ever to that goal. But the first transit system to connect Tampa Bay won't be light rail.

Instead, leaders are coalescing around bus rapid transit to lead the way.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

Also known as BRT, it's a system that allows buses to travel more quickly along dedicated lanes, avoiding the traffic jams that choke the region.

A 40-mile BRT route connecting Wesley Chapel to downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg has emerged as the leading option in the $1.5 million study undertaken by Jacobs Engineering to bring regional transit to the bay area.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa Bay's transit future: Light rail's out. Rapid buses are in.

The goal of the Regional Premium Transit Feasibility plan is to come up with a realistic project that can earn federal dollars. For years, local leaders believed that would be light rail. But referendums to build such a system have failed on both sides of the bay, and political support has always lagged.

The dream was still alive as of September, when Jacobs identified a light rail system from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg along Interstate 275 as the No. 1 option. But the latest data, to be presented Jan. 19, show BRT now leads the way in terms of cost, ridership and likelihood of gaining federal support.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Long-awaited Tampa Bay transit study identifies five corridors for future transportation systems (April 22, 2017)

But it's not just the metrics that have flipped. The sentiment of many local political and business leaders has switched, too. Many who were strong advocates of light rail are now throwing their weight behind BRT.

What changed? Ask those in the business community, such as Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans, and it's clear that technology developments such as driverless vehicles and ridesharing have many rethinking whether light rail will become outdated in the future.

State politics may also be a factor: Legislators seem to favor investing in those technologies instead of light rail.

Ask local politicians like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and they'll say that the region needs a transit win — any kind of win. And if BRT is more likely to succeed than light rail, then BRT it is.

"Candidly, I'm tired of talking about it," Buckhorn said. "We need a victory. .?.?. I can say with a great deal of certainty if we move toward a BRT model using the existing interstate, we can get this done much more quickly than another prolonged debate in a political referendum about whether or not rail is appropriate for our area or not."

Kriseman said he and other regional leaders still want to see a light rail system take shape one day. But the reality, he said, is that BRT is more affordable, easier to build and quicker to get running.

"Unless we are willing to ask the public to tax themselves significantly in order to make it happen," he said, "then realistically, light rail is really not going to happen."

Still, BRT supporters have a bold vision. They're not talking about plopping county buses into everyday traffic and using the same, worn-down stops. No, they're dreaming bigger. So big, in fact, they say they want to build something no one has seen before.

"We have to do it in a way that has a 'wow factor' and dispels everyone's stereotype of a bus," Homans said. "From what I can see, there is not a model in the U.S. that provides us an example of what we would want to emulate."

Instead, Homans pointed to something Tampa Bay residents are familiar with: the automated people movers at Tampa International Airport.

"That is essentially a bus, but it feels like a form of light rail," Homans said. "To me, that has to be our aspiration here."

Tampa Bay Lightning owner and developer Jeff Vinik, who previously supported light rail and has called for local politicians to do more for transit, said in a statement that he's encouraged by this new direction.

"Gold standard BRT may well be an excellent addition to our transportation options in Tampa Bay," Vinik said.

BRT doesn't currently exist in transit-starved Tampa Bay. But plans to build a much smaller system are being drawn by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which wants to connect downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches via dedicated bus lanes along First Avenues N and S. However, this 11-mile route depends on federal funds coming through in the next few years.

Plan envisions 'rapid' bus trips from St. Pete to beaches. But will Trump fund it? (Dec. 20, 2017)

The ideal regional BRT system would feature covered stations with platforms, Homans said, where sliding glass doors open and people step from the platform onto the vehicles. The buses are expected to have a dedicated lane for a majority of the route, allowing them to bypass regular traffic. What constitutes a dedicated lane might change based on what portion of the 40-mile route people are using.

For example, BRT could use the managed express toll lanes planned for the new Howard Frankland Bridge while crossing the bay. Once it hits the West Shore area, it might travel in its own lane along the expansive median of I-275 — which has been set aside as a transit corridor — until it reaches downtown Tampa. On other parts of the interstate, it could use the shoulder or breakdown lane, a concept that transit agencies have used in cities like Chicago.

The vehicles might not even look like traditional buses. Instead, they could be smaller, more agile vehicles.

"I think the idea is to get vehicles that don't look like your standard bus, that have more of a rail feel to them, but the technology is still rubber tire," Kriseman said. "So you're kind of combining the feel of rail with the cost and flexibility of BRT."

That system would ideally be able to accommodate autonomous vehicle technology in the future.

This new transit spine would connect other transportation modes to help people get from the interstate to their homes, jobs, even restaurants. Known as the "first-mile, last-mile" solution, it could include circulators, ridesharing and bike sharing.

The goal of this initiative is to synch up with a Florida Department of Transportation study evaluating where future intermodal centers could go and what they'd look like. These transit hubs would connect all forms of transportation in one large station and ideally would spur nearby development.

The DOT study should take about 12 to 18 months to evaluate plans for intermodal centers in five different areas, said Ming Gao, modal development administrator in Tampa. That means the state should have a vision for transit hubs in Wesley Chapel, near the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa, the Gateway area and downtown St. Petersburg sometime in 2019.

Though the specifics of the BRT plan are unknown, it's becoming clear that this — not light rail — could become the first regional transit system connecting Tampa Bay. Jacobs' planners said they could not discuss the plan ahead of the Jan. 19 public unveiling. But any plan still has to pass muster with the governments of all three counties: Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco. No local funding has been identified, either.

"This is the first step, and hopefully, if successful, it will build into a much bigger system," said local DOT secretary David Gwynn. "They're going to have to evaluate cost, potential ridership, what they think they may be able to pull together for local funding."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

Creating one transportation planning agency for all of Tampa Bay won't be easy (May 12, 2017)

Goodbye Tampa Bay Express, hello Tampa Bay Next; but toll lanes aren't going anywhere (May 22, 2017)

Depend on a HART bus to get around? Life could get harder. (Oct. 6, 2017)

The Cross Bay Ferry won't come back this fall. What about 2018? (Nov. 10, 2017)

Express lanes set to open on Veterans. They're free — for now. (Dec. 8, 2017)

Traffic solution in the sky, or just pie-in-the-sky? (Jan. 5, 2017)

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