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

An ongoing study is poised to name a bus rapid transit system as the highest-ranking option for improving transit in the Tampa Bay area. The preferred route would travel alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel, to the University of South Florida to Tampa, before crossing the bay to St. Petersburg. The system could use updated vehicles similiar to this mockup for another BRT route planned from downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches. [Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority]
Published Jan. 11, 2018

Watch out, Tampa Bay: light rail is out, and buses are in. For now, anyway.

Transit leaders appear ready to scrap their dream of building a light rail line connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in favor of a bus rapid transit system that would run alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Petersburg.

Also known as BRT, the plan to bring that form of transit to the bay area is being drawn up by Jacobs Engineering, which was hired to conduct a regional study of premium transit options that can one day become a reality.

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

The plan will be unveiled to the public at the Jan. 19 meeting of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group (TMA), a group of political and transportation leaders from the three counties. But the planners said they could not discuss the details before next week's public meeting.

However, they've already started explaining the plan to public officials. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said they were recently briefed on the 40-mile bus route that has emerged as the lead option from that ongoing regional transit study.

"This is a real, live proposal," Cohen said. "This is the first time in a long time that we're going to have a real project with a blue print in front of us that we can sink our teeth into."

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

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

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

The buses are expected to have a dedicated lane for at least a majority of the route, allowing them to bypass regular traffic. And they might not even look like traditional busses, Cohen said, instead favoring smaller or 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. However, those details and many others, including the cost to build and maintain such a system, are still being worked out.

But while the specifics are still unknown, it's becoming more clear that an enhanced bus system, not a rail line, will likely be the first major regional transit project that Tampa Bay leaders pursue.

"The numbers don't lie," Buckhorn said. "When you look at the cost and the ridership numbers and the likelihood of state and federal matches, I think it made a lot of sense."

Buckhorn has long been a proponent of rail, particularly connecting urban areas, but said he wasn't interested in waiting any longer while people continued to debate the merits of a light rail line.

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Elected officials and citizens have tried for decades in Tampa Bay to gain enough support for rail, failing most recently in Hillsborough in 2016 and Pinellas in 2014. Rail has also lacked support from local legislators.

"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."

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has a plan to build a BRT system that would connect downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches, but the 11-mile route depends on federal funds coming through in the next few years.

The Jan. 19 meeting will see the third significant update in the regional premium transit feasibility plan, a cumbersome term for a process to identify specific transit projects that will best serve the region. It's all part of a 2½-year study, paid for with $1.5 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and overseen by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

Neither Buckhorn nor Cohen was surprised by the selection of BRT over light rail, but said they suspect some in the community might be. The last update from Jacobs in September listed a light rail line along that corridor as the leading option.

"I do think there may be people in the public who might be surprised that they didn't land squarely on a light rail project," Cohen said. "They very much think its a good long-term play, as well as something that could be implemented quickly and more affordably than the other options."

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

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