The drumbeat around our transportation needs in the Tampa Bay area is growing louder by the day.
The CEOs of companies that might consider relocating to the region, or expanding here, say our transportation infrastructure is their No. 1 concern. Young people who are choosing where to stake their professional claims are seeking cities with a dense urban core that’s easy to get around. If we intend to successfully compete for companies, jobs and the talent that attracts them, then it’s time to take action.
There’s clearly no single solution to the transportation challenge. Resolving this growing dilemma, with an eye to our immediate and future needs, will require a variety of short- and long-term initiatives, from buses and trains, to ride-hailing services and ferries; even gondolas are a possibility. But one of the most critical steps toward providing a foundation for many of these transit options will be the Tampa Bay Express (TBX) project being implemented by Florida Department of Transportation.
TBX will add toll lanes to our highways, connecting Gateway to Westshore to downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida. These lanes, regulated by a “dynamic pricing” model, will add much-needed capacity to our congested road network. But TBX will do much more to help us advance public transit in the region, and these benefits have been largely ignored in the heated debates over this important project.
First, these toll lanes will provide the backbone for our transit agencies to operate express buses, outfitted with comfortable seats and Wi-Fi, between our major business districts in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Express buses, at this time, provide our best opportunity for point-to-point transit. Without the toll lanes, these buses would just be stuck in rush-hour traffic, negating any possibility of true “express” service. This type of transit needs to be fast and dependable, and that’s exactly what the toll lanes deliver. They’re also being funded by the drivers who choose to pay for the convenience of a faster trip.
Second, some critics of TBX believe we should be more creative in identifying transportation solutions, and look to new technology for our future; and we are. The same dedicated lanes created by TBX would likely provide the best operational infrastructure for autonomous vehicles. The expansion of the interstates would also preserve enough space in the median to accommodate what FDOT calls “premium transit,” which could take shape in the form of rail.
Third, the TBX project will rebuild the Howard Frankland Bridge with a strong enough foundation to support a variety of rail technologies. Without this foundation, our future transit options will be severely limited; with it, we have the opportunity to connect two dynamic business centers, which, when combined, constitute one of the largest office markets in the Southeast.
Fourth, to efficiently link our transportation networks, we’re going to need intermodal centers as the central location for riders to get off and on express buses, trains, circulator trolleys, airport monorails and more. The FDOT has purchased property near Cypress Street and West Shore Boulevard in Tampa to be used for this purpose, and connecting to this intermodal facility is a key component of TBX.
The Tampa Bay Partnership supports building a regional transit system, and we support TBX. This project provides an absolutely essential foundation to pursue a variety of forward-thinking transit options that facilitate connectivity throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Any delay with TBX just delays our ability to provide mobility to our residents, visitors and businesses, and we encourage FDOT to continue to work with the local community and its leaders to implement this important project.
Rick Homans is president and CEO of Tampa Bay Partnership.