It sounds easy: Connect the major destinations across Tampa Bay with fast, intercity bus service. But area leaders have spent years trying to find the sweet spot between price, speed and convenience. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority is now exploring a path that is both practical and promising. Express buses could be a quick, affordable way to get service off the ground and to build the foundation for broader regional transit.
The authority was poised to move forward last month on a regional bus rapid transit line that would connect Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Bus rapid transit lines, or BRT, typically operate in dedicated lanes, making them less susceptible to congestion delays. As proposed, the rapid buses would travel in their own dedicated lanes for 31 miles of the 41-mile line. Almost the entire route would run along Interstate 275, with 13 stops between downtown St. Petersburg and Wesley Chapel, with major connections in Gateway, the Westshore business district, downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida area.
This route has been envisioned for years as a major mass transit corridor for the Tampa Bay region. And with the buildout over the coming years of I-275 and the Howard Frankland Bridge, local officials saw an opportunity to include premium transit service in the mix. But political support for the project has ebbed, especially in Hillsborough County. Critics there say the construction costs ($353 million) and ridership projections (5,400 per day) don’t justify the expense, especially with estimated travel times (46 minutes between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa) that hardly make it seem particularly “rapid.”
Against this backdrop, the transit board made the right decision in February to consider express bus service between the three counties. Express buses typically operate in tolled or otherwise restrictive lanes. They make few stops compared to regular buses, and don’t require nearly as much infrastructure as a bus rapid system. The board voted unanimously to have consultants reexamine a 2015 study that proposed express bus service along the same route as the rapid bus line. That study projected that an express bus system would cost about $116 million (in 2014 dollars), or one-third that of a bus rapid line. And it was generally projected to move more people than rapid buses. The consultants are working to create an “apples to apples” comparison between the two plans, so the transit board, at its meeting April 23, can decide whether express buses are a viable alternative.
Without Hillsborough’s support, which isn’t coming, the region has no reason to make the bus rapid system a priority to compete for cooperative federal funding. While express lines generally have fewer bells and whistles, this lower-priced alternative can be operational sooner. There’s no need to spend $90 million (as under the bus rapid plan) for stations and other infrastructure. And express service could help build a ridership base for more premium options down the road, whether rapid bus or something else.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who proposed the move, is right to search for common ground on a regional mass transit project. The system could complement local bus service within the individual counties, while recognizing that tens of thousands of area residents cross county lines to work every day. And there is an opportunity here for the Florida Department of Transportation to support mass transit across Tampa Bay as it has in South Florida and greater Orlando. A state-funded pilot would help brand the new express bus service and provide the transportation department with a richer perspective on transit options as it modernizes the local interstate system.
The counties have their own mass transit needs, but they also must embrace the advantages of better connecting those systems. This concession by the transit agency should become a step towards addressing one of the region’s top challenges.
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