It is time for Hillsborough County to move forward as the leader of Tampa Bay Region and start seriously addressing our transportation issues, especially local and regional transit. Our region is way behind similar metropolitan areas in per capita spending on transit and Hillsborough County is at the lowest level for peer communities. Our local system does not serve our community effectively in a way that will attract choice riders with the underfunded condition HART is in. We have virtually no regional transit to connect our activity and job centers. We must start somewhere with a plan that is affordable, uses our existing assets, and will provide quality service to riders. If transit is going to impact our congestion, provide connections to job opportunities, and bring our region together, Hillsborough County has to be the center of the plan and local transit must be addressed if a regional system is going to work.
FDOT over the last three years has worked to restudy the transportation issues by beginning the process of reexamining the interstate modernization plans that were completed 20 years ago. Much has changed in the last 20 years. Neighborhoods in the central part of Tampa have come back strongly and are providing alternatives for families to suburban areas that are also still growing.
The interstate system is critical for supporting our economy by moving our citizens, as well as goods and service through Hillsborough County and the region. It is also vital to hurricane evacuation for the entire region. Hillsborough is the center for jobs, entertainment, air travel and medical care beyond our county’s boundaries. We must find win/win situations that provide opportunities for improvements to our interstate system and transit while still protecting our neighborhoods.
There are two studies covering many aspects of both our interstate system and transit issues. The most notable ones are the idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the Florida Ave/Tampa Street corridor to connect downtown Tampa and the USF area and how to provide space for express rapid transit on the interstate for more regional trips. One system may not be able to accommodate both functions in a successful manner. We need to continue working to find the right blend which might well be BRT on arterials in dedicated lanes with more stations and express rubber tired transit with less stations on the interstate. Not being duplicates of each other but working together to provide excellent service for all users. The next phases of these studies need to come up with a combination that works together to make sense and work for the urban neighborhoods in Tampa. We also need to look at connections to the east to Brandon and north to northwest Hillsborough County and southern Pasco where new growth is occurring. Having these areas connected downtown will also provide access to both BRT on Florida/Tampa and the express system on the interstate.
FDOT is looking at alternative designs for Tampa’s downtown interchange that include concepts that reduce the impact on neighborhoods from the plan that was created and approved 20 years ago. We need to study less impactful alternatives and work on making them even better. Other areas such as the Memorial/I-275 interchange also need to be improved as well as areas as within the urban service areas of the county that are problematic right now such as Big Bend Road and I-75 in south county.
With the tremendous investment in this modernization of the interstate system, we have the chance to include dedicated space for express rubber-tired transit. FDOT has paid for a planning study to use a combination of shoulder lane enhancements, express lanes, and dedicated lanes for use by transit vehicles. If we can create a system that moves transit faster at peak periods than automobiles, we will have a successful system. This is a very rare opportunity when you have an interstate redesign occurring when you are also studying transit options. Normally the money for these improvements come from entirely different funding sources, but our unique situation enables transit dollars to be spent on transit vehicles and stations while using the space created by the redesign of the interstate system for dedicated lanes. That investment with highway dollars is worth over 1 billion dollars that will not come from transit dollars. FDOT has programmed 5 million dollars for engineering to come up with a more detailed plan to make this work.
If we can find a source of funding to support more transit, rail in Hillsborough could be an opportunity in the future. Whatever we do it should be done in a logical sequence first, while we move as quickly as we can. This is exactly what we heard after the last failed referendum. “Why don’t you improve the bus system first incrementally with projects that work as we move toward the future” was one of the things we heard often from participants in focus groups. With the interstate rebuilding, we could have a complete express system in about 5 years while we pursue a plan for rail. We are in a period of disruption in transportation planning and execution right now as many new technologies are on the horizon and it is not yet clear who the winners are. Regardless of that, we need a BRT system on the Florida Ave Tampa St. pairs and that can be done very quickly if we make the resources available.
We eventually are going to need many forms of transit, but we have to start somewhere. We will never be successful if we keep debating about which technology is better and do nothing because we can’t agree. We need them all in the right proportion, in the right place, at the right time. Moving forward with one project does not mean that we stop looking at others. We need to work with our federal and state partners, who could pay up to 75% of the cost of a project that meets their criteria.
We need to move forward with catalyst projects that begins to create a culture of transit in Hillsborough County. Working with our partners at the regional, state, and federal levels are the keys to success and will begin to provide the opportunities that good transit can bring to Hillsborough County, the center of our region. We have to work on the next stage of a plan to make sure it evolves into something that really works.