Column: Tampa Bay should speak with one voice supporting bus rapid transit

Published July 17 2018
Updated July 19 2018

During the past several months, Iíve offered strong opinions regarding the proposed regional bus rapid transit system and argued we should take a closer look at the use of the CSX freight line as a viable transit option for Tampa Bay.

As a member of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership group, which includes representatives from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, I have a responsibility to my home county and the entire Tampa Bay region to ensure the decisions we make and the projects we support are in the best interest of the residents and businesses we serve.

I also have a responsibility to help our region speak with one voice on transportation priorities, once consensus has been reached.

Iíve made my points, and theyíve been heard. Iíve asked tough questions, and theyíve been answered.

Commuter rail connecting Pasco County to Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg via the CSX freight line may be part of a future transit solution for Tampa Bay, and Iíll continue to push for the exploration of that option. But thatís not the project in front of us today.

Today, I am joining with public and private leaders across Tampa Bay to support the regional BRT as the first of many regional transit projects that we must undertake. Itís time for us to speak with one voice, as one region, so we can actually get something done when it comes to solving the transportation challenges we face.

Hereís why I support the regional BRT system, and hereís what I will continue to fight for so we end up with a system thatís a model for other cities to follow.

Most importantly, I support the regional BRT as a "Gold Standard" project, complete with dedicated transit lanes, enclosed stations with platform-level boarding, off-board ticketing and high-quality vehicles running with at least 10-minute frequency during peak travel times.

Gold Standard BRT requires dedicated transit lanes, and I am calling for those lanes to run the full length of the 41-mile route, from Wesley Chapel to downtown St. Petersburg.

The draft concept for the project has buses using managed toll lanes on the Howard Frankland Bridge and operating in general traffic north of Bearss Avenue. Iíve recently learned that FDOT is considering using managed toll lanes, instead of dedicated transit lanes, between downtown Tampa and Westshore.

That piecemeal approach to the development of our primary regional transit corridor diminishes the value of this important project, and it fails to recognize the explosive growth taking place in Pasco, the fastest-growing county in the region.

Dedicated transit lanes also provide the necessary guarantee of transit speed and schedules, and they offer a path forward to embrace and integrate emerging technologies such as autonomous, electric vehicles.

If we donít take action to establish this dedicated transit lane now, in connection with the highway infrastructure investments planned in the next few years, and insist that it span the entire three-county route, we may never have an affordable opportunity to do so again.

I look forward to working closely with other leaders in the region to advance this important project. The stakes are high: by 2025, another 620,000 residents are expected to call Tampa Bay home and we have to create transit options to accommodate this growth.

Those options canít be constrained by geographic barriers and must allow our residents the best possible opportunities to live, work and play throughout the region. A functioning, effective regional transit system is a necessity for a major metropolitan area, and together, thatís what we are ó the 18th largest in the country.

We have leaders in Tallahassee and Washington who are prepared to support our goal to bring regional transit to Tampa Bay, but they insist on one thing: we have to unite behind one project and speak with one voice.

The time has come to do just that, and I bring my enthusiastic support to the regional effort.

Jack Mariano is a member of the Pasco County Commission and represents Pasco County on the Tampa Bay TMA Leadership Group.