The talk of connecting St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel with a rapid bus system has taken a welcome reality check with Tampa Bay leaders calling for a closer examination of a proposal that needs considerable improvement. This is a welcome step for a significant project that hasn't received the scrutiny it deserves from enough policymakers or the public. The result should produce a bolder transit proposal that aims higher rather than lower.
A state-funded consultant's study recommends that the region build a bus rapid transit system, or BRT, along the I-275 corridor as the first link in an expanded mass transit network across the Tampa Bay area. A tri-county transportation panel, comprised of elected officials and transit agency executives from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, largely embraced the finding when it was unveiled in January. But in the past several weeks, several officials, notably Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, have questioned the proposed route, projected cost and ridership assumptions, and other key details. Hillsborough's mass transit agency, HART, voted last month to withhold giving the plan its imprimatur, with the board majority questioning whether it was bold enough to make a dent in the area's traffic congestion or serve as a tool for economic growth.
The report chose BRT over rail as the first project recommended for the region. It said the 41-mile bus rapid line would be cheaper and faster to build, less costly to operate and likely more competitive for federal matching money. But the plan calls for buses to mix with cars along most of the route, both along Interstate 275 and on Tampa streets under the interstate where most of the bus stations would be located. By not dedicating a reserved corridor for buses, the buses could only move as fast as the cars traveling ahead of them. Some proposed stations are not at major transit connections, and the sheer number of stations — while boosting ridership projections — also means a longer ride between the three counties.
Members of the tri-county transportation panel that serves as the key stop for vetting this plan, which meets Friday, have smartly reset the conversation. While continuing to correctly insist on a regional transit spine and better transit connections, they have raised their expectations for the vetting process, calling for closer examination of the proposal and a peer review by outside urban development experts. The plan is currently in the public feedback stage, and members insisted that this process be serious, transparent and welcome to public input.
Kemp has raised important questions, and panel members from across the region — County Commissioners Janet Long in Pinellas and Jack Mariano in Pasco, among others — are also pushing for a robust approach.
The consultants will spend the spring and summer floating this plan to the public. The core issue here is what does the bay area hope to achieve? While federal funding is a vital component, the plan — the first out of the box — must be meaningful enough to change the transit equation. It is essential that the public knows what the buses would — and would not — do, the costs and why a dedicated corridor that could serve buses or light rail has to be a priority. That's the only way to make an informed decision about a key strategy for this region's future.