Editorial: Too soon for Tampa Bay to settle for buses over light rail

The buses running along the 1st Avenues North and South will have a sleaker, more modern look, as shown in this mock-up from Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
The buses running along the 1st Avenues North and South will have a sleaker, more modern look, as shown in this mock-up from Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
Published Jan. 19, 2018

The good news on the transportation front is that Tampa Bay's government and business leaders are working together like never before to connect the region's largest cities, attractions and employment centers with a more robust mass transit system. They are wisely focusing on a direct route across Tampa Bay as the first major project toward improving regional service. But they are prematurely embracing a rapid bus system and dismissing light rail because buses are less expensive and more politically expedient.

The consultant hired by the Florida Department of Transportation, Jacobs Engineering, presented its recommendation Friday for what it envisions as a "catalyst" project for improving regional connections. It proposed a bus rapid transit system connecting downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa with Wesley Chapel as the preferred first step. The proposed system, known as BRT, is nothing new and has been widely accepted for years as a likely component of a regional transit plan. But in cementing BRT as its first priority, the recommendation effectively sidelines light rail — despite rail's standing for years as the most desirable transit option, its potential to spark redevelopment and create jobs and its earlier top ranking.

The Jacobs study names bus rapid transit as the most forward-looking and competitive for state and federal funding. In contrast to rail, the study found BRT would be cheaper, easier and quicker to build and offer more bang for the buck. The 41-mile route would use managed toll lanes on the new Howard Frankland Bridge, expected to be built by 2024, and a transit corridor in the median in parts of I-275 into downtown Tampa. On other parts of the interstate, buses would use the shoulder or breakdown lanes, and even the general use lanes. The DOT will spend the next phase of the study soliciting public feedback.

Express buses are an integral part of mass transit systems. While the costs vary depending on the route and the need to buy right-of-way, construction and startup expenses could be one-third or half the costs of rail. The DOT study estimates the regional bus line could cost $450 million to construct, compared to $2.5 billion to $4 billion for rail. Bus routes also are easier to move than fixed rail lines, though changing express routes could also hurt demand if riders lose confidence that the buses will be there. But the false choice of buses over rail is like choosing apples over oranges. They are two distinct systems with their own advantages, drawbacks and customer bases. That's why the ideal transit plan would include a mix of each.

The reality is that this proposal isn't even a robust bus proposal. While some communities operate buses in the shoulder, or in toll lanes, these proposed lanes are not reserved entirely for mass transit. Buses would still share much of the road with vehicles, and they could travel only so fast as the slowest car ahead of them.

The transit mode — whether it is bus, light rail or whatever — is less important now than acknowledging the need for dedicated corridors and a generous new revenue stream to build and operate them. Light rail should have a role in moving the tens of thousands of people who cross county lines in the bay area to work every day. Rapid buses could fill the medium-range gaps by offering fewer stops to commuters traveling across the county. Traditional bus systems, bike and ridesharing programs and other options such as downtown trolleys could take it from there. The point is that no one form of transportation operates in a vacuum. The best premium transit — BRT or rail — won't work unless local bus service is robust enough to move people between stations and their final destinations.

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It's understandable that the change of heart about rail comes after failed voter initiatives for light rail in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties over the last eight years. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman have cited political fatigue as a factor in their sudden embrace of BRT. But while rapid bus may be cheaper, this region doesn't have the money at the moment for BRT or rail. It cannot even adequately fund its existing bus system. And any meaningful improvement in mass transit in the bay area today will require more revenue from the federal and state governments, and from local taxpayers. There is no free ride here and no easy path toward securing a new revenue source.

Tampa Bay has a history of mistaking political decisions for smart planning. The move away from rail contradicts the arguments that area leaders have made for some two decades — that rail is a long-term investment that will move people more efficiently, redevelop urban cores and spare the suburbs and the environment further damage from sprawl. The argument that the region is more competitive for BRT because we don't have rail now is self-defeating. The study says a rail line in Tampa could come at a later date. But moving away from rail as a regional solution is a shortsighted approach that reflects a lack of confidence in years of planning and ignores the arc in growth coming this way.

The chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, summed it up right this month when she told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board she was disappointed in the shift from rail. "I think we need to keep all the options on the table," she said, "while we figure out what the needs are." That's a sound approach. It doesn't prejudice rail, BRT or any other option. It doesn't interfere with the region's ability to take advantage of new technology such as autonomous vehicles.

The DOT study reflects a regional consensus that the existing transit system desperately needs work. It focuses on the correct priority of crossing the bay and linking the major cities. But Tampa Bay should be bold in seeking solutions rather than declaring victory by settling for the cheapest option that risks the least political capital.