Focus is on Bus Rapid Transit as first step in Tampa Bay Area transportation solutions

In 1985, Dennis Hinebaugh moved from Detroit to Tampa to work at the Hillsborough Area Transit Authority (HART) on the planning and construction of a 75-mile light rail system and a downtown people mover.

Neither of those projects became a reality. Over the ensuing three decades, plans to build light rail mass transit systems have repeatedly hit a dead end, most recently when Pinellas County voters overwhelmingly said no to the Greenlight Pinellas sales tax referendum in 2014 and when the Hillsborough County Commission voted against putting a sales tax referendum to voters in 2016.

But Hinebaugh, now the program director for the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute at the University of South Florida Center for Urban Transportation Research, sees potential in a new plan that favors bus rapid transit over rail as a “catalyst” project to spur future public transit improvements and ridership  in congested Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Tesla provides option in last-mile pilot“Every three to five years we talk about it very seriously, ‘we’re going to build a light rail system,’ ” Hinebaugh says. “And here we are 33 years later. Bus rapid transit is something that has a better chance of getting funded and having the community get behind it. But a big thing to remember is this regional spine system. This is not the local system. This thing will not survive by itself. There has to be improvements to the PSTA, and the HART and the Pasco County systems at the local level to feed this and get people the last mile. This by itself won’t do it. There have to be major improvements to the transit systems.”

At the January 19 meeting of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area (TMA) Leadership Group, Jacobs Engineering, the firm conducting a state-funded $1.5 million study of potential regional mass transit projects, unveiled a 41-mile BRT system from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg as its recommended number one option to kick start mass transit in Tampa Bay. The route would run along Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel through Tampa, across the Howard Frankland Bridge and to downtown St. Petersburg. In some areas of the route, the BRT system would have exclusive use of travel lanes put on the shoulder of the road.

The transportation agency and elected officials from Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas who sit on the TMA Leadership Group were generally in favor of BRT as an option that could be built more quickly and at less cost than light rail. That could make it an easier sell to the public, although it remains to be seen if a future sales tax referendum is part of the funding plan. The BRT option is also expected to be more competitive for federal funding than a prior version with significantly higher costs that made more use of dedicated travel lanes.

“This solution can be enacted quickly and cost effectively, ultimately contributing to a true transit solution this area and its residents deserve,” HART Interim CEO Jeff Seward says in a statement. “We look forward to sitting down with citizens and regional partners to hear their thoughts and answer questions about the true feasibility and impact of the catalyst project."

The projected construction costs are in the $380 million to $455 million range, with annual operating costs of $5 to $7 million. The estimated construction time is five years. Initial ridership projections are modest. The estimated increase in daily transit ridership is 4,500 passengers.
A 9-mile rail system along the CSX corridor from the University of South Florida to downtown Tampa was the other serious option as a catalyst project. It had projected construction costs of $490 million to $620 million, a 10-year build time and $9 million to $12 million in annual operating costs.

What is BRT?

While BRT is a new addition to the Tampa Bay Area’s transit conversation, more than two dozen U.S. cities have systems in place, according to the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute at USF’s CUTR. They include Boston, Cleveland, San Antonio, Los Angeles and college towns such as Eugene OR and Fort Collins CO.
Hinebaugh, who is also a member of the TMA technical working group, says in general, common characteristics of BRT systems include dedicated lanes, signal prioritization, articulated buses with larger passenger capacity, more frequent service than standard buses, off-board fare collection, and technological advances such as wi-fi for passengers and real time travel information on display at stations.
The buses are sleek, designed to look like  a passenger rail car more than a bus. Transit stations are also larger, more comfortable and more permanent than a bus shelter.

An urban transportation solution

Bicycles add transportation optionBRT systems with high ridership numbers often operate in densely populated urban areas, where residents and employees are looking for alternatives to the automobile to avoid congestion and parking issues. In that regard, BRT would fit in well with the mixed-use redevelopment projects that are transforming downtowns in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater -- attracting thousands of new residents.

Research by the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute and other groups has also shown that BRT systems can play a role in spurring additional urban development near transit stations, Hinebaugh says. In Cleveland, for example, the HealthLine BRT system helped lead to $6.3 billion in economic development along one corridor, including 4,000 new residential units and 7.9 million square feet of commercial development.

“Developers and the public who ride the transit want something with permanence to it, something that is high quality,” he says. “They know a bus rapid transit station is going to be there. A bus stop, a bus route, is not enough to spur development generally. You can move that bus stop or route or you can eliminate it. But if you make a major improvement, whether it is rail or bus rapid transit, and you make those improvements in the right-of-way and with the stations, then it’s not going anywhere. They can then make that kind of investment in apartment complexes and development. You will sometimes see that kind of investment like you would near a light rail line. We have done studies on Cleveland and Boston that have shown results from bus rapid transit that are similar to a light rail line.“

Early in the process

While BRT is now the priority option under consideration, talks are nowhere near final. At the January 19 meeting, opponents of prior sales tax initiatives were pleased that light rail was no longer the focus of transit talks. Still, some voiced concerns that another vote on a sales tax increase might be looming down the road to fund the local share of BRT.
Scott Pringle, with Jacobs Engineering, says that meeting was the launching point for several months of public outreach and discussion.

Tampa's TECO Line Streetcar SystemSeveral TMA Leadership Group members also noted BRT was not a solution on its own. Upgrades to Tampa’s streetcar system and a PSTA BRT system that runs parallel to Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg are among the other transit improvements in the works that could feed a BRT system. The Florida Department of Transportation’s Tampa Bay Next initiative includes I-275 upgrades, a Howard Frankland Bridge replacement and a slew of other projects to try and ease congestion.
At the Jan 19 meeting, FDOT District 7 Secretary David Gwynn said if BRT becomes the region’s first premium transit project after decades of discussion, additional projects and the federal funding for them could follow. 

“This is not the ultimate end game for transit in the Tampa Bay region, nothing even close to that,” he says. “What this would hopefully be is a first step that could start to generate transit ridership, that would be able to get federal money started into the process, build ridership. Hopefully over time, those other elements of the system, whether they be bus, rail, some from of technology that evolves, can be built upon this project.”

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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.