An evolving plan to create a robust transit system for Tampa Bay appears headed in a better direction. Transit leaders and a consultant designing the proposal are aiming higher and pushing for a bolder rapid bus system connecting St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel. There is much work to do, and local leaders have to continue lobbying the state to buy in and fulfill its previous commitments. But this is a positive development reflecting a refreshing willingness of local transit officials to listen to voices seeking a more ambitious vision for addressing the region's greatest shortcoming.
A state-funded consultant's study recommended in January that the region build a bus rapid transit system, or BRT, stretching 41 miles on the I-275 corridor, from downtown St. Petersburg to Tampa and Wesley Chapel. The line is envisioned as the initial spine of a broader, regional mass transit system. Many elected officials and business leaders embraced the idea as a cheaper, quicker alternative to continuing to pursue light rail. But the initial pitch called for buses to mix with cars on much of the route, and that simply would not be a meaningful solution.
In a meeting Wednesday with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, transit officials said they will now push for dedicated bus lanes on at least 31 miles of the route, from St. Petersburg to north Tampa. Officials acknowledged existing congestion on the interstate would make it difficult to blend in rapid buses with other traffic, even in managed toll lanes. The 10 miles between Fowler Avenue north to State Road 54 in Pasco County initially could mix with regular traffic, though dedicated lanes could be added there in the future.
"Let's fully do dedicated lanes," said James Holton, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, the lead agency in the transit plan. "We're going to lobby for that."
Officials offered no estimate of the added cost of creating dedicated lanes along a longer portion of the route to a project already estimated at up to $1.6 billion. But Holton is absolutely right: Expanded bus service won't be worth anything if the public doesn't see it as a better option than commuting in their cars. "I don't think we can cheap out," he said.
Holton and others involved deserve credit for this change in thinking. Mixing buses with cars has limited potential to reduce commuting times, and there are safety questions. Dedicated lanes create a safer and more efficient corridor, and they make it easier to adapt to evolving transportation technology, regardless of whether vehicles are on rubber tires, rail or some other form. The initial proposal was little more than express bus service, and critics on both sides of Tampa Bay were smart to demand better.
The Florida Department of Transportation already has pledged to support the project financially, and it will have to be persuaded to embrace the more vigorous version involving dedicated lanes. Local officials also should hold the state to its earlier commitment to spend $25 million to harden an underwater portion of a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge to support light rail. A rapid bus system may come first, but it would be foolish to build a bridge or create a transit corridor that limits options even if those options may be years away. The urgent focus should be on creating a viable, dedicated corridor for mass transit and worry about specific kinds of future technology later.
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Momentum continues to build. TBARTA now has clear state authority to plan, build and operate a regional mass transit system, and it just received $1 million in the state budget to get moving on that. The Florida Legislature also wisely enabled resort tax money to be used on transportation projects tied to tourism, which will help the Tampa Bay region. TBARTA's new commitment to create a more viable transit spine with more miles of dedicated lanes for rapid buses ranks with those milestones. Those plans will be more fully developed for the public to evaluate this summer, and it is essential that the effort keep moving along this positive path.