Advertisement
  1. Transportation

Imagine: Light rail along I-275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Pete

This light rail train is part of the LYNX system in Charlotte, N.C. An ongoing study has identified light rail as the highest-ranking option for improving transit in the Tampa Bay area. One option is a route alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel, to the University of South Florida to Tampa, before crossing the bay to St. Petersburg. The study is part of a process that will identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will best serve the region. [Times files | 2010]
Published Sep. 29, 2017

TAMPA — A light rail line could one day run alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel, to the University of South Florida to Tampa, before crossing the bay to St. Petersburg.

That project was identified as the highest-ranking regional transit option during Friday's update on an ongoing study that aims to bring transit to Tampa Bay. Planners also highlighted five other transit projects they deemed most likely succeed in 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.

What's not being discussed? How to pay for it. Money and funding sources — such as federal grants or a sales tax referendum, similar to those that failed here in 2010 and 2014 — won't be part of the discussion until the region has agreed on a viable project with broad support.

"Clearly, that's the elephant in the room," said HART CEO Katharine Eagan. "All of us are probably thinking about it or having other conversations, it's just not part of this process yet."

Instead, the focus remains on finding an option leaders can agree on. Friday's rankings aren't final, and will fluctuate as cost, public input and other things are considered. Planners are expected to recommend a preferred project in fall 2018.

For now, the second highest-rated project was a "rubber tire" option — such as bus or self-driving vehicles — with its own dedicated lane along that same I-275 route. Instead of sitting in traffic and facing the same slow downs as those in their cars, these vehicles would run in exclusive lanes meant for transit.

This option could be incorporated into the state's Tampa Bay Next plan to add express toll lanes to the region, meaning drivers who opted to pay a fluctuating toll could also use that lane.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Long-awaited Tampa Bay transit study identifies five corridors for future transportation systems

Light rail from downtown Tampa to USF scored the third-highest when engineers evaluated technical aspects and public opinion.

Politicians and transit advocates alike have placed a lot of weight on this study, hoping it can provide some sort of blueprint for one day solving the bay area's transportation woes.

"We're looking for projects that provide the greatest community benefits," said Marco Sandusky, HART's director of government and community relations.

This is the second significant update in the regional premium transit feasibility plan, a cumbersome term for a process that will identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will best serve the region.

TIMES ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

A team from HART along with Jacobs Engineering recommended six specific projects Friday — including the exact routes and the type of transit that will operate on them — after two years. DOT first announced the initiative, originally called the premium transit study, in late 2015.

Yet some in the audience, such as Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert, felt the study was working toward a predetermined outcome instead of evaluating every option. Calvert, an advocate of bus and autonomous vehicles, was disappointed but said she wasn't surprised to see light rail — a polarizing subject in the community — at the top of the list.

"We didn't get ridership estimates, no cost estimates, no cost-per-mile," Calvert said. "The conversation here is rail again and a referendum."

Planners expect to spend another eight months vetting the plans in community meetings and gathering input before determining how to pay for any approved projects.

Local leaders have not yet decided whether they are going to apply for federal funds — that process takes longer than some politicians would like. But transit planners decided to follow the federal process just in case those dollars are needed in the future for maintenance or expansion, Eagan said.

Members from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas' transportation planning groups — known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations — were present Friday to weigh in on the projects.

Some, such as Hillsborough MPO executive director Beth Alden and County Commissioner Sandy Murman, wondered why projects connecting West Shore and Brandon didn't rank higher. Representatives from Pasco and Pinellas talked about the importance of getting their constituents on board. It remains to be seen whether the three counties will be able to come together to support one project, especially one that might not have stops in each jurisdiction.

"We're never going to get something that's going to make everybody happy," Pinellas MPO member Jim Kennedy said. "Once we get a firm start, it can grow from there."

Pinellas MPO member Doreen Caudell said it was "extremely important" to get all elected officials in the same room to identify and move forward with a single plan, even if every city and county isn't served by whatever project is first built.

"It does feel like some of the top priorities are Tampa-centric, but you have to get through Tampa to get to that beautiful beach in Clearwater," Caudell said. "Once we take that first step, the next step will happen and then the next. They're all needed, no matter what order."

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

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. "Lefty Lucy, Righty Tighty?", Siomara Bridges-Mata, 32, asks her coworkers as they assemble one of 900 bikes Friday when Amalie Arena transformed into Santa's Bike Shop. Bridges-Mata volunteered with Frameworks of Tampa Bay, Inc. JOHN PENDYGRAFT  |  Times
    Local nonprofit Onbikes organizes the annual bike build to provide bicycles to kids in the community
  2. Service dog Eleanor Rigby unexpectedly gave birth to eight puppies at Tampa International Airport as her human family was waiting near gate F81 to board a flight to Philadelphia in May 2018. The airport is getting ready to add pet-relief areas at its airsides for service dogs. (EMILY NIPPS | Tampa International Airport) Tampa International Airport
    Work on the new amenities is expected to be completed by next July.
  3. This Wednesday, June 21, 2017, file photo shows the building that houses the headquarters of Uber, in San Francisco. Uber acknowledged more than 3,000 sexual assaults occurred during U.S. Uber rides in 2018, the company said in a long-awaited safety report. ERIC RISBERG  |  AP
    That figure includes 229 rapes across the company’s 1.3 billion rides.
  4. Michele Arceneaux, former president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, speaks during a press conference against three proposed toll roads in the Florida Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. LAWRENCE MOWER  |  Lawrence Mower
    The announcement came as the Florida Chamber of Commerce touted the proposed roads.
  5. The Cross-Bay Ferry cruises along the Vinoy Yacht Basin as it heads toward Tampa. The Vinoy condominiums can be seen in the background. The city hopes to attract more vessels for entertainment and tourism to the downtown waterfront. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    Most of the increase is tied to an additional round-trip sailing on Sundays.
  6. The intersection at Seminole Boulevard and East and West Bay Drive forbids drivers from turning right, even on a green light. FDOT
    The intersection at Seminole Boulevard and the East/West Bay Drive is the only one in the district where drivers are restricted on green-light turns.
  7. Abiona Adadevoh addresses the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board Monday about an attack last month on bus driver Schnaider Prophete. Prophete, center, was saved bus bus rider John Phelps, right, when a passenger attacked him with mace and a box cutter. Caitlin Johnston
    The agency has installed safety shields to protect operators on about 80 percent of its fleet so far.
  8. A Brightline passenger train passes by on Wednesday in Oakland Park, Fla. After Richard Branson announced his Virgin Group would partner with Brightline, Florida's new higher-speed passenger rail service, a train whisked the British billionaire, VIPs and journalists from Miami to West Palm Beach in just over an hour and then back, with no problems. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP
    An Associated Press analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data shows about one fatality for every 29,000 miles traveled.
  9. In this April 24 file photo, American Airlines aircraft are shown parked at their gates at Miami International Airport in Miami. A woman demanding a larger seat on an American Airlines flight is in custody after faking a medical condition that prompted the pilot to head back to Pensacola. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File) WILFREDO LEE  |  AP
    The woman wanted a larger seat on an American Airlines flight.
  10. Herbert Hayden, front, got help cleaning up his mobile home from people he met on the bus. Then they formed a lasting friendship. From left are bus driver Barbara Irizarry and riders Judy Martin and Hopeton Johnson.  "We're a family now," Martin said. DIRK SHADD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Three friends who met on Route 11 stepped off the bus to help an older passenger whose home maintenance had gotten away from him.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement