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Hillsborough leaders raise questions about bus rapid transit

TAMPA — Leaders in Hillsborough politics and transportation are speaking up this week about their concerns with Tampa Bay’s latest proposal to bring transit to the region.

Bus rapid transit, known as BRT, emerged last month as the lead option for Tampa Bay’s first premium transit project, featuring dedicated routes. The initial briefing on this 41-mile project along Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Petersburg was met with relatively positive feedback during its public unveiling at a tri-county Jan. 19 transportation meeting.

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

READ THE REPORT: Check out the Regional Transit Feasibility Plan

There was opposition as usual from Tea Party and No Tax for Tracks members, directed at most transit projects. But now some traditional transit supporters are also pushing back against the proposal, questioning whether its alignment along Interstate 275, its reliance on highway shoulders and elevated stations would really provide the premium transit system that so many are clamoring for.

"I think it’s a huge mistake to be thinking about this, which isn’t really a BRT system," Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said at Tuesday’s meeting of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. "It’s an express bus system."

Some questioned running the special buses down the I-275 shoulder rather than along a dedicated new lane. The buses would have their own lane in the interstate median from West Shore to downtown Tampa, but the other 36 miles would run along the shoulder or in lanes shared with other cars and vehicles.

This prompted Kemp and other members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board to question other aspects of the project — where the stations would be built, for example, and whether the project would draw the same level of economic development along its route as a rail line or BRT with dedicated lanes at street-level.

"I hate that you keep calling it BRT," Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez said at Monday’s HART meeting. "There are parts of it that are BRT, but they aren’t really a real BRT."

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

Suarez and Kemp, along with Hillsborough County Commissioners Stacy White and Les Miller, voted at Monday’s meeting to prohibit HART staff from getting involved in public outreach on the project. Instead, they said, this should be left to the consultant hired to conduct the study, Jacobs Engineering.

Kemp also brought her complaint to a countywide transportation meeting Tuesday, which included representatives from Plant City, Temple Terrace, Tampa International Airport and other Hillsborough entities. She criticized the proposal for relying on the interstate rather than using community streets, where more riders might use it.

Kemp also faulted the use of interstate shoulders.

"Express buses are fine," Kemp said, "but this simply isn’t the transformative project we need now."

Instead, she pushed for another transit project outlined by the consultants: a passenger rail system connecting downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida using nine miles of existing CSX freight tracks. The consultant said that should be the second project the region tackles after it builds a BRT system.

COMMUTER RAIL: CSX’s offer finally opens the door to commuter rail in Tampa Bay (Oct. 4, 2015)

Kemp later characterized the HART vote as a non-endorsement of the BRT plan. But Miller and White said it wasn’t their intention to weigh in for or against the project at this time.

"I continue to believe stakeholder agencies should stay on the sidelines," White said Tuesday. "I don’t necessarily consider that a non-endorsement. I think Jacobs just needs to do their work at this point."

White said he remains neutral on the BRT project. He’d like to see the Jacobs team conduct more public outreach and answer questions about potential funding sources.

Miller said he has some concerns about the BRT line running along the interstate but he’s not ready to form an opinion on the merits of the project.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here’s why. (Feb. 16, 2017)

Other MPO board members, such as Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, support the BRT proposal, are eager to see some sort of transit project move forward in a region that has spent decades failing to build anything but roads.

"From the airport standpoint, we’ve got to do something, fast," Lopano said. "This is one piece of the puzzle. There’s no silver bullet. ... No single thing is ever the answer."

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

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Hillsborough leaders raise questions about bus rapid transit