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2020 Hasn’t Been a Disaster for Tampa Transit, Officials Say

Despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, transit officials in the Florida region say many transportation initiatives have moved ahead successfully.

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Lanes are blocked by cones in August as construction crews work at the north end of the Howard Frankland Bridge in Tampa. The Florida Department of Transportation added new lanes to the bridge approach.
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(TNS) — Transportation, like every corner of life, presented challenges in 2020. Bus ridership plummeted, speeding increased on local roads and the state had to delay projects after the budget took a substantial hit.

But while local officials worry over when the West Shore interchange will be built and whether transit ridership will ever rebound, other areas of improvement provided reason to celebrate this year — new travel lanes, some added transit funding and the dawn of driverless shuttles.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said one silver lining in a pandemic year was less traffic on local roads.

“It makes it a little easier to get projects done more expeditiously,” Castor said. “And (it’s) safer out on our roadways.”

State officials offered grants for safety and transit projects and were able to speed up timelines for some roadway projects.

“All in all, I think we had a really good year,” said David Gwynn, the local Florida Department of Transportation secretary, “if you take out the black swan, as they call it — the thing nobody expected to happen.”

Here’s a list of some of the improvements Tampa Bay saw this year on its roads and transit lines:

NEW LANES AT THE HOWARD FRANKLAND BOTTLENECK

The north end of the Howard Frankland Bridge has long been a sore spot for commuters, who are often forced to wait in traffic as the lanes narrowed from four to two.

But the state brought some relief this summer when it opened new two lanes, one north to downtown Tampa and another toward the exit for Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa International Airport and the Veterans Expressway.

The Florida Department of Transportation spent $30 million to add the lanes, which opened months ahead of schedule.

“We were able to accelerate this project and it was kind of a side effect of the pandemic, because traffic was a lot slower than normal,” Gwynn said.

Still, the lanes are only a short-term solution until a new, wider span of the bridge is built and connects with a rebuilt West Shore interchange.

State officials said earlier this month they’ll have to delay the interchange work by two years because of pandemic-related budget cuts.

$67 MILLION FOR TAMPA STREETCAR EXTENSION

Road construction funding took a hit this year, with the state announcing delays on several major projects. But state and federal dollars for transit initiatives in other areas still flowed, including the largest grant Tampa Bay has ever received from the Florida Department of Transportation.

The TECO Line Streetcar is one step closer to serving Tampa Heights after state officials pledged $67 million to extend and modernize the streetcar.

The goal is to run the streetcar every 10 minutes and connect it with trails, bus service and other modes of transportation.

The city hopes the new service will be up and running by the end of 2026, said mobility director Vik Bhide. But it still needs local and federal dollars to come through before it can move forward with the $234 million project.

The city will know in February whether the project qualified for a federal grant.

The local match could come from revenue generated by a transportation sales tax voters passed in 2018. The legality of the tax was challenged by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White. Officials are awaiting a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court before deciding if and when they can spend the money.

CONSTRUCTION STARTS ON HOWARD FRANKLAND BRIDGE

Tampa Bay’s roads saw far less traffic at the start of the pandemic, leading Gov. Ron DeSantis to move up $2.1 billion of the state’s biggest road projects.

A new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge is the most expensive project on the governor’s list, at $864 million.

For years, local transportation officials have been preparing to build a new span of the bridge, at times having to scrap plans due to widespread community pushback.

Construction crews are now working in Tampa Bay to erect the eight-lane bridge, which is set to open by 2024. It will replace the aging northbound span of the Howard Frankland.

BREAKING GROUND ON TRANSIT BETWEEN ST. PETE, BEACHES

Construction started this year on the first bus rapid transit route in Tampa Bay.

In May, President Donald Trump announced a $21.8 million grant for the route linking St. Petersburg and the beaches. The 10.3-mile route is expected to start running in early 2022.

Bus rapid transit is a term for a route that has its own dedicated lane, fewer stops and quicker boarding.

The route, known as the SunRunner, will have 16 stops. Buses will run every 15 minutes in their own lane along First Avenues North and South before turning onto Pasadena Avenue South and traveling down Gulf Boulevard.

Transit supporters hope the Pinellas route will be the first in a network of bus rapid transit routes connecting the Tampa Bay Region.

“This, really when you think about it, is the first big mass transit step that’s been taken in the region,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. “We’ve all talked about light rail, we’ve talked about high-speed rail, we’ve talked about a lot of things, but this is not talk. This is action. This is what gets us to those places down the road.”

A similar project linking downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida is in development, with Hillsborough County transit officials analyzing traffic, station locations, design and environmental impact. A study earlier this year found that the proposed 16-mile bus line could cut travel times in half.

DRIVERLESS SHUTTLES COME TO TAMPA, ST. PETE

This year brought driverless shuttles to Tampa Bay, giving many locals their first chance to ride an autonomous vehicle.

Self-driving shuttle operator Beep launched pilots in both Tampa and St. Petersburg during the fall.

The downtown Tampa route connects Marion Transit Center with the TECO Line Streetcar. Much of the 12-block corridor is closed to general traffic. The service carries riders from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. daily. A second phase involves adding a vehicle and running continuous service from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A similar service in St. Pete links the Dali Museum, the Pier and Cross Bay Ferry terminal near the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel. Known as Ava, the shuttle serves the popular entertainment district Wednesday through Sunday.

Both routes are free to ride. Local transit officials are hoping the pilot programs help people become more comfortable with driverless vehicles and provide opportunities for using similar technology in Tampa Bay in the future.

MORE BIKE LANES, COMPLETE STREETS THROUGHOUT REGION

Often ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the country for people to bike and walk, Tampa Bay made strides this year to improve the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.

The early stages of the pandemic saw more people leaving their cars at home, instead choosing to use trails and paths.

The city of Tampa invested in additional bike parking in its downtown garages along with murals at crosswalks designed to slow drivers.

Mayor Castor also created a new position focused on helping reduce traffic-related deaths to zero. Alana Brasier will head up Tampa’s Vision Zero effort, pushing for road design to protect pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

“I think that we’ve been able to make great strides in transportation this year with a focus on our complete streets and making our roadways safer,” Castor said.

In St. Petersburg, the Pier district opened this summer, with an emphasis on providing a safe bicycle and pedestrian space for the city.

Curbs were extended at several intersections on Third Street between Fifth avenues north and south, which aim make the area safer for pedestrians by shortening the crosswalk distance and reducing vehicle turn speeds.

Next year, the city is focused on constructing a bikeway along Sixth Avenue South, improving the Healthy St. Pete loop bikeway and replacing the Martin Luther King Jr. Street bridge.

PINELLAS, HILLSBOROUGH INVEST IN ELECTRIC BUSES

Transit agencies in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties received federal grants to add electric buses to their fleets.

Pinellas County got its first two electric buses in 2018 and bought four more this year.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is buying its first four electric buses this year, thanks to a $2.7 million federal grant. The buses are expected to be on county streets within two years.

Unlike the loud, exhaust-filled rumblings of diesel buses, these vehicles will run entirely on a charge, produce zero emissions and roll quietly.

©2020 the Tampa Bay Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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