TBARTA has an opinion on Bus Rapid Transit but is still figuring out its transit scope

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority is “strongly urging” Jacobs Engineering and the Florida Department of Transportation to include dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit from downtown St. Petersburg to the University of South Florida, the agency told the Tampa Bay Business Journal Wednesday.

The regional transit agency doesn’t have authority to implement provisions of the plan, but can serve as a key advisor.

Criticism surrounding the 41-mile bus rapid transit plan to connect St. Pete to Wesley Chapel along Interstate 275 includes complaints that the route would not operate exclusively in its own lane and rather share lanes with general traffic, utilize express lanes across the Howard Frankland Bridge and run in shoulders along some spans during times when traffic is slow.

Business groups throughout the region are throwing their weight behind the BRT plan after years of stagnant transit planning.

“The business community is impatient,” said Jacobs Engineering Project Manager Scott Pringle who has presented the BRT plan 164 times as of this week. “They’ve run out of patience at this point and are saying ‘enough is enough.'”

Pringle said he and the Jacobs team is working to include dedicated transit lanes throughout as much of the route as possible.

TBARTA CEO Ray Chiarmonte also said he expects to understand the full scope of the agency’s role in the Regional Transit Feasibility Plan within a year.

The agency is still working on implementing a new mission and strategies after the Florida Legislature approved a measure last year installing TBARTA as the Tampa Bay area’s regional transit coordinator.

The Legislature and Florida Gov. Rick Scott awarded TBARTA $1 million this year to implement a new business strategy, but the agency will need additional recurring funding in order to effectively play a role in regional transit coordination.

The last mile

Talking points both for and against the plan as it is currently being presented don’t fully represent the challenges facing Tampa Bay regional transit. The BRT route, if implemented, would create a spine to get riders from one general area to another, but once that connection happens, riders would still need to get to their final destinations.

That’s where local options come in that would be facilitated through either county transit agencies or others with implementing authority.

Pringle said his firm is working closely with the city of Tampa and HDR on coordinating the InVision Streetcar process with regional BRT. An anticipated streetcar expansion would take the iconic vehicles, or new updated vehicles, through the downtown Tampa core and into the Heights.

The Florida Department of Transportation is also funding an ongoing study of a local BRT corridor along Florida and Tampa Avenues that could carry riders further into the city, away from the highway.

There’s also the Tampa Downtown Partnership-funded downtowner cars that could expand from its current downtown service onto Franklin Street north of the highway as development continues to boom in that area. The group is trying to expand its special assessment geographic boundaries beyond the downtown core, which could fund the expansion.

On the Pinellas County side, the city of St. Pete is working on improving its downtown circulator and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is making progress on the Central Avenue BRT plan that would carry riders from downtown St. Pete to the beaches.

Clearing up confusion

Pringle and Chiaramote met with the TBBJ to discuss ongoing transit plans and coordination efforts. Pringle said he hears a lot of misconceptions from residents responding to the plan.

“It’s a draft. We still have to do all the engineering, all the environmental planning,” Pringle said. “These are things that can continue to be discussed.”

He reiterated the plan is a first step transit plan aimed at creating an attractive regional project that could draw down federal funding and that could make a strong case for future local connections. The Howard Frankland Bridge, he said, will still be reinforced to accommodate light rail if that is ever part of the region’s transit plans.

Pringle also said his firm is considering a phasing process where more than one transit project is included in a series of steps. Chiaramonte said TBARTA could include other projects in its transit development plan.

The two also refuted complaints from transit activists that using existing CSX rail lines would be a better use of public funding saying the connection most frequently referenced — one connecting the USF area to downtown Tampa — would be a local project under the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority’s purview.

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