TAMPA — A new 16-mile bus line connecting downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida could cut travel times in half, according to a recent study by transit officials.
Details about the potential new bus rapid transit route that would connect two of the region’s largest job hubs were discussed during a special workshop this week. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board members said moving forward with the project is the “right thing” for the community.
Projections show the 15.6-mile trip would take between just over a half hour. Typically, that route takes about 46-60 minutes by bus and can last more than an hour in heavy traffic, transit authority staff said.
“The minutes cut off is more than I could’ve imagined,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, a vocal supporter of street-level dedicated bus lanes.
The bus rapid transit line — a term for a route that usually has its own dedicated lane, fewer stops and quicker boarding — would run from downtown on Florida Avenue and Nebraska avenues before traveling toward USF on Fowler Avenue. All three are state roads, which is part of the reason why the Florida Department of Transportation paid $2.5 million for the study. The transit authority began studying the project in 2019.
On Wednesday, transit staff gave a 90-minute presentation about the project to HART board members.
Bus rapid transit is a relatively new concept for Tampa Bay, which previously fixated on the battle to bring light rail to the region. The dedicated bus lanes are popular in other parts of the country and the world for their ability to spur development and ridership without the costs and infrastructure associated with rail.
Pinellas County broke ground earlier this month on SunRunner, a 10-mile bus rapid transit route connecting downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches. The $44 million project is the first of its kind in the region and is expected to open in early 2022.
Hillsborough’s line would cost nearly three times as much, with estimates ranging between $95 million and $119 million.
Much of that cost difference, HART senior planner Justin Willits said, is because Pinellas was able to repurpose existing lanes and Hillsborough would need to build several median guideways, which are more expensive.
About 70 percent of the route would involve the bus running in its own lane, outside of normal traffic. In the south end, near downtown, buses could share a dedicated guideway with other buses and the proposed extension of the Tampa streetcar.
Many portions of the northern half would include a median guideway, where buses would have their own lane and stations would be placed between the opposing lanes of traffic.
Riders would pay the same fare as they do on other county buses — $2 one-way or $4 unlimited rides for the day. Once the route is up and running — as early as 2024 — it would cost $2.8 million to $4.6 million to operate each year, according to staff estimates.
Richard Phillips, who lives in Brandon and often rode the bus before the coronavirus pandemic, said he’d rather see that money spent on improving existing routes and expanding services to other parts of the county. The transit agency has cut service in recent years, and has another 10-percent service cut planned for next year.
“They don’t need to spend that kind of money for just one route,” said Phillips, 38, who takes the route 38 for errands and appointments. “Money would be best spent to provide service to all of the county.”
The proposed route would run close by Route 1, which provided about one million passenger trips last fiscal year. The route, which also uses Florida Avenue, is consistently one of the the top three most traveled in the county.
Monica Petrella, 28, has ridden county buses occasionally for meetings or social outings. She said she’d take the bus rapid transit line to the USF area, where she volunteers with the University Area Community Development Corporation, or to check out new businesses and restaurants that are opening in Uptown.
“I think as a city we have to massively step up our investments in alternative transportation, so I’m happy to see these pieces of the puzzle come together,” Petrella said.
Ridership estimates, depending on the number of stops, are between 8,500 and 11,2000 daily, according to staff.
The bus rapid transit line could replace the Route 1, which Kemp advocated for, saying she didn’t want a repeat of the MetroRapid and Route 2. The two ran similar routes, “and it didn’t work,” she said. The agency eventually scrapped the Route 2.
The MetroRapid has the highest ridership in the county, with more than 1.1 million trips last year, or about 27 riders an hour.
Despite its status as the most heavily traveled route in the county, board members warned that they didn’t want the proposal for Florida and Fowler avenues to turn into another MetroRapid. The bus doesn’t have its own lanes, gets stuck in traffic with other cars and doesn’t provide the other perks of bus rapid transit.
“I think it would be unfortunate if we went for the no-thrills alternative,” board member David Mechanik said. “If they’re not mostly dedicated lanes, you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do.”
Director Adam Harden said the entire board was excited about the possibility of connecting downtown and USF with a premium transit option, but said he was disappointed that they were presented a route that seems to be a “foregone conclusion” but hasn’t yet been analyzed for economic development and other factors.
“I think it’s the cart before the horse,” Harden said.
The transit board will vote next month whether to move forward with the next stages of the study, which could take about nine months. That would include further evaluating the route and transit-oriented development, along with environmental analysis. Staff will also coordinating bike lanes, crosswalks and similar projects with other agencies.
Following that, the board would then be asked in the summer to decide whether it wants to pursue a federal grant that could pay for half of the project.
In order to do so, HART would have to be able to provide a quarter of the cost — about $30 million — which is not possible without revenues from a one-cent transportation sales tax that is currently being debated by the Florida Supreme Court. If justices decide to overturn the tax, the county would need to pass another sales tax or find a similar, sustainable revenue source to pursue this or any other big ticket project.
“We will work this out,” board chair Mariella Smith said. “We have the political will here in our county, and I feel confident that we will work the funding issues out, by hook or by crook.”