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Engineers push back against criticism of bus rapid transit plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Proponents of a bus rapid transit system that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel pushed back Friday against recent criticism of the proposed plan.

The lead engineer told a group of regional leaders that they wanted to clear up a "misconception" and "concerns" about their plan to address Tampa Bay’s mind-numbing gridlock.

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Last month they revealed a proposed 41-mile BRT route, which would connect the region with fast-moving buses using dedicated lanes. That came as a surprise to some, who expected the two-year, state-funded study to recommend that the region prioritize building a light rail system, not BRT.

The team from Jacobs Engineering, the firm contracted to develop the plan, has stressed that the details are still being refined. But some traditional transit supporters, such as Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, said that the version of BRT that Jacobs proposed falls short of expectations.

"I really don’t have confidence in what’s being put forward," said Kemp, who has spent recent weeks criticizing the project.

Project manager Scott Pringle used Friday’s meeting of the Transportation Area Management leadership group (TMA), a group of political and transportation leaders from the three counties, to address that criticism.

BRT: Learn how bus rapid transit (and rail) could work in Tampa Bay

READ THE REPORT: Check out the Regional Transit Feasibility Plan

Critics’ main question: how much of this tri-county route actually puts buses in their own lane, separate from other vehicles?

That’s crucial because in order to qualify for federal funding — and Jacobs’ mandate was to find transit projects that could attract federal dollars — a BRT system has to have its own dedicated lane for at least 50-percent of the route.

Pringle told politicians Friday that the 41-mile route would have its own lane for 20 miles. But in order to meet the federal funding threshold, future grant applications would focus on the 31-mile section connecting St. Petersburg to the University of South Florida.

By removing the 10-mile segment that stretches into Pasco, dedicated lanes would comprise about two-thirds of the 31-mile BRT route. Because the buses are traveling in the same lanes as regular traffic from USF to Wesley Chapel, Jacobs spokesman Kyle Parks said, they’re essentially functioning as an express bus route there, not BRT.

What would the 20 miles of dedicated bus lanes look like? That depends on the section of the route.

For nearly five miles from West Shore to Tampa, officials would build a new lane in the median of Interstate 275, which was widened after the interstate expansion to accommodate transit.

The other 15 or so miles would put the rapid buses on the interstate shoulder, from St. Petersburg to the Howard Frankland Bridge and then again from downtown Tampa to USF.

"They will be separated from all other traffic to allow those vehicles to bypass congestion," Pringle said.

BRT: Tampa Bay Transit: How rapid buses left light rail in the dust (Jan. 12, 2018)

That leaves 11-miles where buses would not have their own lanes, which is mainly the Howard Frankland Bridge and approaches. Instead, the buses would use the express toll lanes the Florida Department of Transportation plans to build on the new bridge.

"The approach there was to save money ... while still getting really great convenience for those riders," Pringle said.

DOT’s goal for all vehicles using the express toll lanes is to maintain a minimum speed of 45 mph. The price of that toll, which the buses would not have to pay, will rise and fall based on demand.

Kemp and others, such as Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller and Tampa City Council member Mike Saurez, criticized the BRT plan earlier this week for relying on elevated stations instead of street-level stations, which they believe would be better able to attract development. Transit-oriented development has also been touted as a benefit of light rail.

Pringle said only two of the stations — one at West Shore Boulevard and another at Howard and Armenia Avenues — would be elevated. Those would use pedestrian overpasses, elevators and escalators to connect the platforms in the median of the interstate with the businesses, parking and other transportation options in the Westshore Business District.

Kemp also argued that planners were being disingenuous when they said the interstate shoulders could act as dedicated lanes. She cited examples in Minnesota where buses only travel along the shoulder when there is a crash in the regular lane. In those cases, buses are restricted to a maximum of 35 mph.

While that scenario was briefly considered in Pinellas a couple years ago, Pringle said that is not how the shoulders would be used in the BRT plan. The buses would run along the shoulder for "all hours of the day while service is running," effectively providing a dedicated lane.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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