State funding promises to turn up volume on regional transit solutions

After more than a decade in operation, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority is now emerging as a key player in the region’s efforts to fight congestion with public transportation.

The agency, known as TBARTA, is currently overseeing the planning processes for two significant initiatives: The proposed bus rapid transit system along Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg and Envision 2030, a 10-year plan of priority transit improvements across Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, and Pinellas counties.

TBARTA is also the region’s big winner for transportation funding in this year’s state budget, with an earmark of $2.5 million. Of that, $1.5 million will go toward operational and personnel expenses to build the organization and $1 million to study innovative transit solutions such as smart city technology, autonomous vehicles, multimodal transportation, hyperloop technology, and zero-emissions transit, among others.

David Green, TBARTAExecutive Director David Green, who joined the organization in November after serving as CEO of the public transportation agency in Richmond, VA says the infusion of state money will position TBARTA to finally fulfill its mission.

“TBARTA was created back in 2007 but it was never given any funding for operations,” Green says. “The state never assigned any funding for TBARTA to do anything. This really enables us to get our feet under us now and develop this organizational structure. It allows us to get going and start doing what they intended for TBARTA to start doing years ago. Our key focus this year is establishing credibility and getting our feet under us, elevating TBARTA’s capability to where we need to be to carry us into the future.”

The path to the agency’s more prominent role starts in 2017, when the Legislature rebranded the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Agency as

"Our key focus this year is establishing credibility and getting our feet under us, elevating TBARTA’s capability to where we need to be to carry us into the future.” -- David Green, TBARTA

the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, narrowing the focus of the organization and requiring the preparation of the 10-year regional transit strategy that will be Envision 2030.

That mission shift came after Tampa Bay ranked as high as the 11th most congested area in the country, according to the annual index of traffic levels compiled by car navigation system manufacturer TomTom. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater also ranks ninth in the country for population growth, adding more drivers to clogged roadways and increasing the need for the type of viable, comprehensive regional transit system TBARTA is tasked with studying and planning.

“It really boils down to the amount of congestion we have,” Green says. “Our population growth rate is ridiculous. When you add in the number of residents we have in our region who work in a county other than where they live and the fact that we don’t have any regional transit options right now, the result is it forces people to get in their cars by themselves. Eighty percent of our commuters are driving on highways by themselves because they don’t have any other options. That’s kind of where we are at now, identifying the gaps in regional mobility and figuring out how we can implement solutions and reduce the number of single occupant vehicles on our roads.”

State Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-TampaState Rep. Jackie Toledo of Tampa worked to secure the TBARTA funding in the state budget to give the region a unified voice on transit planning and funding requests similar to MetroPlan Orlando in Seminole, Orange, and Osceola counties.

“We have to communicate with our surrounding counties,” Toledo says. “Since the county metropolitan planning organization are more focused on their specific projects, TBARTA would be the best venue to get that going. We really need to focus on regional transportation, find out what our needs are and communicate those needs to the Legislature and Department of Transportation with one voice instead of different voices that can’t agree on something. That’s how we end up losing money, as we’ve seen in the past. The Orlando area has one voice with MetroPlan and we don’t have that with our different MPOs. I think TBARTA can be that voice.”

Green says the $1.5 million infusion of state money adds planners, an accountant, executive assistant, communications director, and other staff, and puts personnel resources in place for the study of innovative transit technologies that the state also funded. As for the other plans underway, Green says the Envision2030 plan is due to the state by September of next year but should be done earlier in the Summer of 2020.

He describes that plan and efforts to implement its 10-year strategy of transit improvements as TBARTA’s priority for the next several years. As for the planning, design, and engineering study for the potential I-275 BRT corridor, Green says it recently started and will take approximately two years.

He says TBARTA will also conduct a peer review of other regional transit planning agencies around the country to identify and implement best practices for building and operating this organization.

State funding for transportation programs

While TBARTA was the region’s only transportation project to receive line-item funding in the budget -- Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed $500,000 for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority (HART) intelligent transportation system upgrade -- annual funding for the Florida Department of Transportation will flow to priority transportation projects included in local counties’ metropolitan planning organizations’ transportation improvement plans.

In Hillsborough County, large-scale projects in the five-year transportation program include the replacement of the Howard Frankland Bridge, improvements along Interstate-275, and interchange upgrades at Big Bend along Interstate 75. Stephen Benson, a regional metropolitan planning administrator for FDOT, says there are also a series of safety improvements and bicycle and pedestrian projects.

Some of the new additions to the priority list include the continued development of the GreenARTery trail-way, an I-275 trailhead that will one day link to the new Howard Frankland, and a paved trail on the north side of the Courtney Campbell to link Rocky Point to Bayport Port Drive.

Benson says that the Courtney Campbell project will be a safety improvement for cyclists and pedestrians.

“You basically have to cross the Causeway to the southside to go to the left, you can’t get there on the north side of the causeway,” he says. “So this project will fill that gap in the sidewalk on the north side of the Causeway”

Here are links to organizations and initiatives in this story:

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather and the wealth of outdoor festivals.
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