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  1. Opinion

The downtown-Tampa-to-USF bus has to be fast | Editorial

Hillsborough County should continue exploring Tampa-USF transit link.
An example of BRT, or bus rapid transit, that is being considered in Hillsborough County. [Courtesy of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority]
An example of BRT, or bus rapid transit, that is being considered in Hillsborough County. [Courtesy of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority]
Published Jan. 5
Updated Jan. 5

First the good news: Despite legal and financial challenges, Hillsborough County’s transit agency is plowing ahead with plans to create a rapid bus connection between downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida. The service could provide a faster, cheaper and more convenient commute between two of the region’s major employment centers. But for that to happen, Hillsborough must commit the money and vision to truly make mass transit a defining feature of urban Tampa.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Caitlin Johnston reported, Hillsborough’s transit agency, HART, is refining plans for dedicated bus lanes between downtown Tampa and USF’s main campus. The lanes would separate buses from other traffic, creating a faster travel corridor and safer on-and-off boarding. Dedicated lanes have other spin-off benefits; planners can integrate feeder buses for local connections and use the stations to jump-start retail and other economic activity in the surrounding areas.

Transit officials don’t know yet how must the project would cost, exactly where it would stop or the number of people it might carry. Those details are expected this spring. But the concept, and a few particulars, were shared recently at a community workshop in Seminole Heights, a neighborhood north of downtown located along the route.

As envisioned, the line would run north on Florida Avenue from downtown, jog east to Nebraska Avenue and then north to Fowler Avenue. An exclusive bus lane would run down the median of Fowler east to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, on the campus’s western edge, before turning north. The bus would make 20 stops along the way, each about half a mile apart. Eight of the route’s 12 miles would use exclusive transit lanes, enabling the buses to bypass traffic. The goal is to shave the existing travel time of local bus service by one-third, to about 30 minutes, slightly longer than existing express service.

The concept marks a welcome change of thinking in two distinct ways. First, it recognizes that premium service requires dedicated lanes. These are the building blocks of any mass transit spine, especially in a crowded urban core, and in a city like Tampa so inhospitably planned for bus traffic. Second, it looks to bring rapid service to urban streets, alongside where people live and work, which should attract more riders than interstate-level bus service.

HART, though, needs to decide: Does it want bus-rapid transit, known as BRT, or merely improved service at the local level? Twenty stops? That’s not BRT; it’s not even express. If this service is meant for short-hauls, why not improve existing local service, rather than engage in a branding exercise that falls short of expectations?

These discussions, though, could lead to critical transit investments in Tampa’s urban core. They could be an outlet for improving emerging plans for regional BRT, and a better option for commuters between Tampa and St. Petersburg. Much depends on whether the Florida Supreme Court will reject a legal challenge to Hillsborough’s new countywide transportation surtax. But in looking to acquire land, and bring premium service to the neighborhoods, HART has brought a welcome new level of seriousness to the region’s quality of life.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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