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Hillsborough hopes improved transportation system will bring jobs

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s already congested traffic system will only grow worse unless significant improvements are made before 2040, when the county’s population is projected to have grown by more than 500,000 people.

That was the message driven home Wednesday to Hillsborough’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group, a panel of elected officials who need no reminding that the county’s road network is overcrowded and its mass transit system is lacking.

The group _ county commissioners, the county’s three mayors and the chairman of the HART bus system _ is charged with approving major transportation improvements in hopes of connecting job centers and energizing the local economy. Those projects will begin coming to the panel from county staff in the first months of 2014. A decision on how to pay for them will come later in the year.

Right now, commuting times in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area are “not significantly out of line” with similarly sized metro areas, said Steve Polzin, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. The average local commute is 26-27 minutes, slightly over the peer cities in several studies and higher than the national average by only a few minutes.

More worrisome is that the Tampa area ranked 22nd worst out of 105 metro areas in traffic congestion in one study, and 27th worst of 101 in another. The area’s arterial roads _ major roads that aren’t freeways _ are the most heavily used in the country, and use of its freeway is second highest.

What does that mean? To accommodate the 500,000 people expected to migrate to Hillsborough County during the next two and half decades, 800 additional lane miles of arterial roads and 208 lane miles of freeway will have to be added.

And that would only keep the capacity where it is now _ crowded.

“It suggests we need some pretty substantial increases in infrastructure capacity just to maintain current levels of roadway capacity,” Polzin said.

Hillsborough also led peer counties in bicycle traffic fatalities and was second to Orange County in pedestrians killed by vehicles.

The county’s transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, is working on a long-term transportation plan, with a heavy focus on connecting key economic growth areas. Beth Alden, assistant executive director of the MPO, said the agency is working with surrounding counties as it plans for future transportation projects.

Some of the improvements the MPO is looking at include adding express toll lanes on I-275 and I-75, a rail system connecting Westshore with downtown and USF, a “people mover” tram from the airport to Westshore, and widening major arterials such as Hillsborough Avenue, Dale Mabry Highway and Anderson Road.

Alden said increasing the number and frequency of HART buses and bus routes can only do so much for the coming traffic challenges.

“The challenges we have with buses ... is they’re operating in the same traffic as everybody else,” Alden said.

County Economic Development Director Ron Barton told the group that roads and bridges provide the economic “gateways” businesses need for moving goods and workers. He said one-sixth of Hillsborough County workers come from other counties.

The county is working on identifying economic “hot spots” where it hopes to lure companies that provide high-wage jobs. Those spots will only be as hot as the transportation systems that connect them, Barton said.

“If this constrained road system is not addressed,” he said, “then the job site is going to become irrelevant.”

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Hillsborough hopes improved transportation system will bring jobs