TAMPA — A study exploring whether express interstate toll lanes are the key to a faster commute could be complete — at least in draft form — by summer’s end.
The Florida Department of Transportation is driving the study, assisted by other regional transportation agencies looking for ways to maximize the existing road system and loosen gridlock. It is considering express toll lanes on Interstate 275, on I-75 and on I-4.
Bus Rapid Transit — or running buses on managed highway lanes — is a big part of the study, said Scott Pringle, an FDOT consultant, who updated the Metropolitan Planning Organization on the study Tuesday.
“We’re focusing on long-distance commuter trips,” like bus rides between Wesley Chapel and downtown Tampa, Pringle said. The study looks at key destinations, ridership-heavy areas, station placement and cost.
Express toll lanes are already in use and successful in various cities around the country and local transportation planners are tapping their knowledge to determine how to tackle issues like bus station placement along or on interstates and how to handle parking for those using the bus service.
“We are identifying projects that are like Tampa, reaching out to other cities and asking what they would do differently,” Pringle said. So far, he said, a common theme is parking issues. Not having enough space for commuters to park and catch a bus is “an indication of success, because demand is greater than expected,” he said. And this area needs to consider that.
When the study group looked at what Miami-Dade is doing on Interstate 95, Pringle said, they saw that just adding the express toll lanes increased bus ridership by 30 percent, due to guaranteed speed and allowing buses to bypass congestion.
“I’m so excited about this,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who represents the fast-growing South Shore area of the county. But, she said, she was disappointed that the proposed express toll lanes didn’t extend further south, where most of the county’s new affordable housing is going in.
Murman said she would at least like to see the express lanes go as far south as the Selmon Expressway, if not to Big Bend Road, where rush-hour traffic is a daily nightmare for commuters.
Lee Royal, government liaison for FDOT, said future plans for the toll lanes will include south Hillsborough County. She said the study will first look at areas with the highest bus ridership.
“If we had more (bus) service, we know we would have more ridership,” Murman said. She urged the study group to consider traffic traveling north from South Shore on I-75, in planning the toll lanes.
“I’m a big fan of this concept,” said Steve Polzin, an MPO board member and director of the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research. Public input will be critical, he said, because commuters need to know what areas will be served.
Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Monteleone, another MPO board member, urged the study group to get more public input on the front end of the study. County Commissioner Mark Sharpe agreed, saying public input on the front end is important.
Joe Lopano, chief executive officer of Tampa International Airport, called the presentation “a good first step. We all recognize that we have a problem today, but we need to look out 20 years when the airport will have double the number of passengers.”
And young people will want to use this express bus system, he said. They much prefer sitting and having access to wifi for texting, twittering and emailing than driving, he said.
“Other communities are roaring forward” with similar express lane plans, Sharpe said. “The public wants this and it takes a long time,” so roaring forward is the way to proceed.