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Bus Rapid Transit Replaces Light Rail In Eyes of Transit Planners

Wikipedia Commons
A BRT system in China

Tampa Bay has the dubious distinction of being the largest metro area in the country without any kind of local passenger rail service. So as our rush hour commutes crawl to a standstill, transportation planners are taking yet another shot at mass transit. The latest proposal might not include rail at all.

Anyone who's wrestled with rush hour in the Tampa Bay area knows the morning and afternoon routine: white knuckles on the steering wheel, foot constantly on the brake, hours wasted on the road.

Emily Henke lives in Riverview and commutes every weekday to Tampa.

"It's probably one of the worst in the country - if not the worst. It's the worst-funded, it's the worst-used, I feel bad for anyone who has to use public transit in Florida," she said.

Her husband drives the other way, to Bradenton. She's a planner, so she knows a thing or two about the dire outlook for improving transportation.

"I mean, people don't move to Florida to pay more taxes," she said. "It's completely pitiful."

Henke took the time recently to drive to a public meeting at the new Tampa Armature works - which you can only reach by car. There, some of the plans for the future of Tampa Bay transportation were unveiled. Amidst the dozens of maps of expanded roads and potential transit corridors, one thing became clear: our dalliance with light rail - which is like a modern version of streetcars - is still years away - if at all.

And a gussied-up bus system - called Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT - may be the region's only hope for any kind of mass transit in the foreseeable future.

Bus Rapid Transit would use its own lanes on a rebuilt Howard Frankland Bridge, and parts of the median of Interstate 275. The rest of the 41-mile route would to use the Interstate's shoulder to skirt traffic jams. The cost: around  $455 million. That's $4 billion cheaper than the projected cost of light rail. And although BRT could become a reality in five years, the new span of the bridge won't be done until the mid 2020's.

Brad Miller is CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

"Basically, almost every metro area that has had a successful transit investment program has started with a catalyst project - as we're calling this BRT system - where they start with something the public sees that benefits them, and they want more," he said.

Miller believes light rail will happen - eventually - but since the state is planning to expand Interstate 275, he says having a bus system connecting Wesley Chapel, Tampa and St. Petersburg is realistically the only way to go now.

"Incremental in steps. I mean, this area, Hillsborough and Pinellas County, have had voter referendums and those have not passed," he said. "So this is an opportunity to take advantage of this investment that's going to happen by the DOT to get something going.

"There is no one solution. "There is no silver bullet - there's silver buckshot, and this is one of the pieces of it." - Ray Chiaramonte

That's the rub - since 2010,  voters have rejected sales tax increases to pay for mass transit systems - once in Pinellas and twice in Hillsborough. The Department of Transportation is still contemplating commuter rail service on existing CSX tracks, but that would only connect downtown Tampa with the University of South Florida.

Ray Chiaramonte is head of TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority. He agrees that some day, rail could be in our future - but it's not going to be the first step. Will people willingly give up their cars to ride in a bus?  He says, yes.

"Because the buses they're talking about do not resemble the local buses at all. If you look at them, and you glance at it, it actually looks like rail," he said. "They would probably have forward-facing seats and things for more long-distance travel, quieter, smoother, the accordian-type bigger buses. So it's a different experience."

But is BRT the answer to Tampa Bay's traffic woes?

"There is no one solution," said Chiaramonte. "There is no silver bullet - there's silver buckshot, and this is one of the pieces of it. But this is a piece we can piggyback on to something FDOT's already doing, by having them redesign it in a way that will provide the infrastructure at a very low cost for this to occur."

Back at the Tampa Armature Works, Jim Hartnett scans the maps arrayed against the bare brick walls. He's a bike racing planner from Tampa Heights, and thinks the last thing we need to do is give up on light rail.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Jim Hartnett at the Tampa Armature Works

"It's short sighted, it's stupid, I mean almost every community around the country has had to put a referendum a few times at the ballot before it finally gets passed," Hartnett said. "And maybe it keeps getting approved every time they do it. Maybe it gets little more accepted. Maybe it gets a little more critical. Whatever it might be, it takes a few times, it seems, so it seems silly to just give up at this point."

But fast-moving technology has a way of making even the most advanced plans moot. Chiaramonte is among a growing chorus of planners who believe autonomous vehicles may be soon rule the roads.

"I do think we're in a disruptive period right now, where we're not sure where transportation is going to go," he said. "Kind of like when the car first came out. And I think within a decade, this will all settle down."

He says when cars first were invented, it was looked at like a novelty for rich people. But it ended up kicking horses back into the stable - and changing our entire way of life. Autonomous vehicles, he says, may do that again.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Map of the proposed BRT system

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.