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Tuesday, Oct 25, 2016

Go Hillsborough answers city’s call for mass transit

Second of four parts.

People living in and around the city gave planners a different message than the rest of Hillsborough County did during workshops last year on how to improve the county’s transportation system: Mass transit is the region’s greatest need.

Elsewhere in the county, people said road resurfacing and new roads are more important than mass transit, though by a small margin.

The difference in opinions reflects the balancing act city and county officials faced as they created a Community Transportation Plan. Developed during the yearlong Go Hillsborough process, the plan identifies specific road, bridge, trail and transit projects that could be financed by a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase.

The tax would raise an estimated $117 million a year.

County commissioners are expected to decide April 6 whether to put the tax on the November ballot. Supporters and opponents alike expect a close commission vote.

The transportation plan divides the county into four regions — northwest, northeast, southeast and Tampa-Temple Terrace. Proposals for those areas were developed after the county took public comments at 86 workshops, four telephone town halls and other venues.

Also contributing to the project list was the transportation Policy Leadership Group — county commissioners, the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities, and the chairman of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority, the county bus system. The group met for nearly two years.

“With all these three cities together and HART, I don’t think we’ve ever had such a comprehensive plan ever,” said Jean Duncan, director of Tampa’s Department of Transportation and Stormwater Services.

In discussing the Tampa portion of the plan, Duncan highlighted what she called “signature projects” — extension and modernization of the city’s streetcar system and a commuter rail linking downtown with Tampa International Airport.

Both projects would be eligible for state and federal funding, Duncan said, but the $19.7 million that the city would receive from the proposed sales tax increase could ensure their completion.

“We’re ready to do a lot of good hard work if that’s what people want,” Duncan said. “We just need a few extra bucks.”

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Commuter rail was originally discussed as part of the overall Go Hillsborough initiative. But the idea fizzled after planners with Go Hillsborough consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff concluded the county’s “car culture” would lead to rejection of an expensive rail system.

Still, Parsons Brinckerhoff left an opening for Tampa to earmark its own commuter rail. Planners at the engineering company proposed that Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City use 10 percent of their shares of the $117 million for mass transit.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn welcomed the suggestion.

The mayor, presiding over an unprecedented spurt of residential development downtown and in the Channel District, sees mass transit as essential to luring young professionals to the city.

“If we’re going to be competitive, we have to have mobility options,” Buckhorn said Friday. “We can’t build enough roads in the urban core to meet our needs. The ability to move people by mass transit is critical to our future.”

Buckhorn’s position on rail and other transit options appeals to people like Sam Thomas, a junior at the University of Tampa. Thomas, formerly of Richmond, Virginia, said he likes Tampa and would like to stay here after graduation. But he finds the city’s transit options woefully inadequate and its roads dangerous for people who like to walk or bike.

“I would love to stay here afterward, but I definitely think a half-cent sales tax, or even a whole cent, is important because this is just the first stepping stone,” Thomas said after reviewing a map of the proposed Go Hillsborough projects. “We need to do so much more than what this is proposed to be.”

A specific route for the rail line hasn’t been nailed down, Duncan said, but once it’s completed riders would be able to get to the airport from downtown. Another destination for the rail cars and buses would be a transit center planned by the Florida Department of Transportation off Interstate 275 at Westshore Boulevard and Cypress Street.

Tampa’s streetcar now connects Ybor City with the south end of downtown on Whiting Street. The cars have an early 20th-century look and are used mainly by tourists.

With Go Hillsborough money and federal funding, the streetcar could be modernized and extended north to the Marion Transit Center, Hillsborough’s main commuter bus station, or even farther north to Tampa Heights, said city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.

The cars would also make more stops and run for longer hours, Bauman said.

“We’d like that rail to be seen as a convenience rather than a necessity,” said Christina Barker, special assistant to the mayor.

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Tampa would also benefit from new and expanded bus service if voters approve the sales tax. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit would get $30 million in additional funding each year with its share of the tax money.

The agency would use the money to operate two new Metro Rapid routes and five new express routes that would either bring commuters into the city or take residents from one side of Tampa to another.

Metro Rapid service runs all day with high frequency. Every 10 to 15 minutes a bus would stop at special stations with amenities such as bike racks, said HART senior planner Justin Begley. The two new routes would run from downtown to the airport via Kennedy Boulevard, and from Temple Terrace to the airport.

HART would also add five new express routes to six existing ones, Begley said. Express buses move from park-and-ride lots or other collection areas outside the urban core into the city, with few or no stops in between.

“It operates primarily as closed door all the way to the destination,” Begley said.

New express routes into Tampa from the north and east would include buses running on Interstate 275 and Interstate 4. They would continue to the airport, make a loop and pick up passengers, then travel on to St. Petersburg.

The new routes would address comments made in HART and Go Hillsborough public meetings from people interested in regional connections, said Marco Sandusky, HART’s senior manager of equal opportunity and community programs.

“This express connection from downtown to the airport is addressing something we hear a lot about — connectivity to the airport and then to Pinellas County,” Sandusky said.

A new express bus down Interstate 75 east of town would give New Tampa residents an uninterrupted bus ride to downtown Tampa via the interchange with I-4.

For shorter trips or to help people connect to the express buses, HART would offer expanded HART Flex van service in South Tampa and around the airport. HART Flex vans run on a fixed-loop route within a zone. The vans can make up to two deviations off the loop per hour for people who make appointments ahead of time.

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Other than transit, projects that would go forward in and around the city of Tampa with passage of the sales tax include resurfacing 24 lane-miles of neighborhood roads, building 34 miles of new sidewalks and upgrading 27 miles of existing sidewalks.

Five of the city’s oldest bridges — Eugene Holtsinger on North Boulevard, Brorein, Cass Street, Davis Islands and Laurel Street — would also get needed repairs and upgrades. Some of the bridges are nearly 100 years old.

“It will address ongoing maintenance issues and repairing the backlog that was neglected during the recession,” Buckhorn said.

Skip Harvey, an engineer who lives in Tampa Palms, said he favors the half-cent sales tax hike even though his area of the city would see few projects beyond new express bus routes. Harvey said he likes the rail and streetcar projects as well as the dozens of school safety zone flashing signs that would be installed with Go Hillsborough funding.

“I’m looking at it more than just from my specific interests,” Harvey said. “I’m looking at it from a community improvement angle and what Tampa and Hillsborough County need.”

Another supporter is John M. Jermier, a Tampa Palms resident who commutes to his job as a business professor at the University of South Florida.

Jermier said Tampa Palms residents, unhappy with their long, congested commute to downtown, had been excited about the prospect of a light rail system that would have connected New Tampa to USF and downtown.

That rail system, with the first link running from downtown to USF, was proposed as part of a one-cent sales tax hike referendum in 2010. Hillsborough voters rejected the proposal though a majority of voters in and around Tampa supported it.

“I think we need it and I would personally use it,” Jermier said. “Mass transportation is seriously lacking in this area.”

Jermier doesn’t hold out much hope the sales tax will pass if commissioners put it on the ballot. He cited the recent history of failed referendums in the Tampa area, including defeats in Pinellas and Polk counties in 2014.

Still, Jermier thinks passing the referendum would help the local economy without hitting local residents too hard financially. The array of projects will produce jobs during construction and afterwards, he said, while improving the area’s quality of life.

“I’m definitely a supporter of infrastructure projects; I think they pay off,” he said. “But even if they don’t, you still have to have bridges that are safe.”


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