1. Opinion

Editorial: Make way for tomorrow today by designing roads with transit in mind

Eight-laning Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Hillsborough County's biggest current road project, is part of a plan designed with light-rail in mind. No one is talking about that option any more [DENNIS JOYCE   |   Times]
Eight-laning Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Hillsborough County's biggest current road project, is part of a plan designed with light-rail in mind. No one is talking about that option any more [DENNIS JOYCE | Times]
Published Jun. 2, 2017

Make no mistake, it's mainly about the cars and trucks, but the new, wider Bruce B. Downs Boulevard was actually designed with light-rail in mind.

That's hard to believe in a county where even whispering the term today is guaranteed to sink any proposal for alternatives to the prevailing one car, one-driver model.

But there it is, on the early proposals for Hillsborough's biggest current road project — a 20-foot corridor where a Power Point dreamer dropped in photos of the sleek train cars from those other metropolitan areas that have embraced light rail.

Transportation officials confirm the corridor is still there, largely a sodded strip, as work proceeds toward a conclusion late next year for the $140 million road project — eight-laning Bruce B. Downs in four phases from Bearss Boulevard north through New Tampa to the Pasco County line.

But no one is talking about light rail there anymore.

Still, the foresight shown more than a decade ago in acknowledging there might be a different future for transportation is instructive today as Hillsborough County undertakes a 10-year, $812 million transportation plan heavily focused on road work.

The plan is a stopgap measure approved in March by county commissioners desperate to show they have done something about a transportation system they should be ashamed of. The 6-1 vote came on the heels of yet another scuttled attempt to adopt some form of comprehensive transportation plan that includes mass transit.

So yes, the new plan is a roads plan. But it need not be just a roads plan.

There's little chance of carving out another 20-foot corridor for the dreams of tomorrow — alongside, say, Lithia Pinecrest Road, where a widening project would eat up some $100 million of the $812 million pot of money.

But roads also carry buses, the cost-effective workhorses of mass transit, and roads can be designed with buses in mind. Hillsborough County has precious few of them now but those shame-faced commissioners have acknowledged that the day is coming when the county will have to make a sizeable investment in buses and other forms of mass transit.

It would help if we knew more about where Hillsborough should be heading with mass transit, as we will in November when a study commissioned by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit is expected to identify three top-priority traffic corridors. The county will also know more once an underfunded, cash-strapped HART wraps up a plan for next year on revamping its routes and schedules.

But there's no mystery to designing roads that accommodate buses. They need pullouts for the safety of riders and so they don't back up traffic and add to congestion. They need extra room for turning at intersections. They work better with lanes set aside just for them. And they fill up quicker when they can stop at adjacent park-and-ride lots to collect commuting motorists and bicyclists.

Whether these considerations will figure into the road work before us remains to be seen.

Certainly, as the Bruce B. Downs project shows, what's good for all motor vehicles is also good for buses. Additional lanes and improved intersections will help anything on rubber wheels get where it's going faster. And with its separated, motor-free pathways, the project also shows that road design can accommodate another form of alternative transportation — bicyclists and pedestrians.

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What's more, with Hillsborough's out-front role in the testing of self-driving vehicles — a pilot project has been announced for downtown Tampa's Marion Street Transitway — it may not be long before road design is influenced by a whole new set of considerations.

Unfortunately, coloring any discussion of county spending in the future is the prospect of an ill-considered statewide vote to expand the homestead exemption on property taxes. The 2018 ballot measure would exacerbate inequities in Florida's tax code and cost millions that local governments require to provide services.

But whatever money Hillsborough can set aside for the next 10 years, the county would be wise to think in different terms than we've heard in the transportation debate so far — not of roads "versus" transit but of roads that complement transit.


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