Transportation

Tampa Bay, Fla., Citizens Asked to Weigh In on the Future Transit Options

Residents can help determine what type of transit they'd most like to see along the busiest routes.

by Caitlin Johnston, Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. / August 21, 2017
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(TNS) -- TAMPA — It's time, yet again, for Tampa Bay residents to tell officials what kind of transit options they want for their region.

Autonomous vehicles. Express buses. Ferries. Light rail. Project engineers say all of the options are on the table as a regional transit study enters its next phase. Residents can attend three open houses this week across the region, starting with Tuesday's meeting in Pasco County, where they can weigh in on which projects they'd most like to see become a reality.

That input will help a team of experts from Jacobs Engineering recommend a transit plan with three specific options next month, said Jacobs executive Scott Pringle.

Each recommendation will identify what kind of transit system will be built in which busy corridor of the region, and the exact routes those systems will take.

These three options-to-be-named-later won't just end up on another wish list, Pringle said. The plan will identify real projects that engineers believe the region can build and pay for.

The $1.5 million initiative, paid for by the Florida Department of Transportation and led by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, is the latest effort to in a more than 30-year saga to bring transit to a region dominated by vehicle traffic.

Tampa Bay is one of only a handful of major metros nationwide without a rail line. The region spends less on bus service than any of its peers, and connects fewer people to jobs.

The most recent attempt to bring transit to the area was a 6-month pilot for a ferry that crossed the Tampa Bay, connecting the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. It had moderate success as a tourism and entertainment option, but commuters found little use for it. It is unclear whether the ferry will return, either full time or for another six-month season.

It's not a lack of ideas that has stymied this process. Officials have conducted more than 55 studies in the past three decades. Ultimately the question of how to pay for projects — a subject the current group has not yet addressed — has stalled efforts time and again.

"It's not quite an identity crisis, but our community needs to decide what do we value and where do we want to invest," HART CEO Katharine Eagan said. "If we can get some consensus on that, we'll be able to move past doing another study and finally be able to take some action."

Voters and politicians alike have quashed any attempts to raise the sales tax to pay for buses, rail and other transit options. Other considerations, like increasing the gas tax or reallocating other government money, have gained little traction.

But Pringle said those previous attempts shared a common flaw: they tried to determine the funding source before a specific project was chosen or fully vetted. The current process flips that. Engineers have spent the past year researching specific areas that would be best served by transit.

The five corridors Jacobs selected are a mix of routes between Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, connecting the area's densest regions and busiest road corridors:

• West Shore to Brandon through downtown Tampa

• Downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida

• Wesley Chapel to USF, then on to Tampa and St. Petersburg

• Clearwater to the Gateway area to downtown St. Petersburg.

• South Tampa to downtown Tampa.

Now, residents can help determine what type of transit they'd most like to see along those routes. The meetings this week are an open house format that allows people to go through at their own pace.

Jacobs engineers will take that input and come back with three or four recommendations the first week of September, Pringle said. They will then spend the rest of the year finalizing details on those projects and prioritizing them, deciding which would be built first.

Once that happens, the team will spend a majority of next year refining the project list with the public, business community and politicians.

"It's a little different from past efforts where you might come out heave in public engagement in the beginning," Pringle said. "We want to make sure when we go to the public it's a truly meaningful conversation."

©2017 the Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.