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Tampa Bay, Fla., Hopes Traffic Study Will Attract Federal Funding

The study will determine how to connect the Florida counties of Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas through various forms of public transit.

(TNS) -- One day, commuters might be able to take a bus to downtown Tampa, hop on a modern streetcar at mid-morning to meet with a client, then catch an express bus headed toward the airport.

Stopping at a new intermodal station along Interstate 275, they could catch the people-mover train to Tampa International Airport to make an afternoon flight.

All of this may arise from a series of separate studies on transportation options for the region that eventually will morph into a seamless people-moving system, officials say.

It will cost a couple of million dollars just to study the possibilities. But the end goal is hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants to turn it all into reality.

The different studies cover different forms of transportation meant to ease the burden commuters bear each time they get in their cars to drive.

The most comprehensive among them is called a Premium Transit Study, the same kind of study the Orlando area had to conduct before it received funding for its SunRail commuter train. This region’s study began last fall after CSX announced it might be willing to sell 96 miles of track for commuter rail use.

Headed up by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, the study will determine how to connect Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties through various forms of public transit.

The scope of work for the study is now being determined, after which a consultant will be hired, said HART CEO Katharine Eagan.

“At this point, we are meeting with members of the Transportation Management Association, which has members from each county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, talking about what to do in this corridor. Specifically, we are looking at connections between the three counties, which could include rail infrastructure.”

The Premium Transit Study is a way to lay the groundwork for big federal dollars. To even get in line to ask for those dollars, the team has to study all potential options — no preconceived notions leaning toward one option or another.

“We’re looking at the geography,” Eagan said. “The options could include CSX lines, light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit and the first-mile/last-mile pilot we are doing, or a combination.”

First-mile/last mile is a pilot program HART is starting in Brandon, Carrollwood and the University Area to provide rides that get people to and from bus stops.

The study, which will be funded by the Florida Department of Transportation for up to $1.5 million, should get underway by the end of the year, Eagan said.

“The goal is to get a one-page memo we can send to the Federal Transit Administration saying we have identified a corridor to study, a technology and we’d like to get in line for money for a capital improvement project.”

Two federal programs could be tapped for the project — Small Starts grants for projects up to $300 million and the New Starts program for projects more than $300 million.

Just as with Orlando’s SunRail, this area would have two years to apply for the grant money, once the Federal Transit Administration gives its study the nod.

Another study under way by Hillsborough County is funded by a $475,000 Federal Highway Administration grant and will determine the best locations for Bay ferry terminals to take MacDill Air Force Base employees from southern Hillsborough County to the base.

“We’re looking at the best place for the terminals, the best routes, the best time to construct and what environmental issues exist, like contamination, endangered species or vegetation” that might be destroyed, said Hillsborough County Public Works Director Mike Williams.

“We can’t predetermine where the site would be,” he said, because, again, federal rules don’t allow that. “You’ve got to go in with an open mind and look at various options, even though there is a finite number of sites on the water that will work.”

Local funding to launch a ferry is tied to the county’s Go Hillsborough initiative, which could include a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for road and transit improvements.

A ballot initiative to create the tax is under discussion by the county commission, but even if it’s rejected, the ferry project might stay afloat, Williams said.

“The board would have to decide if they want to fund it with some other mechanism.”

Backers of the ferry project contend that by giving MacDill employees an alternative to driving, the high-speed boats could take thousands of cars off the roadways every day.

A $5.3 million federal grant is contingent on the county providing 20 percent matching funds and spending the money before 2019. Where that 20 percent would come from is the question. County Administrator Mike Merrill has said he’s not likely to recommend funding the ferry unless the sales tax referendum passes. Merrill has said roads, bridges and intersections are a higher priority.

County commissioners are split on whether to fund the project should a referendum fail.

Another transit connection that could change local travel dramatically is the TECO Line Street Car System running between Channelside and Ybor City.

The city of Tampa’s Transportation and Stormwater Services Department is preparing to award a grant to study modernizing the street car to make it more of a commuter-friendly form of transportation. A $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will pay for most of the $1.25 million study.

Public input will be part of the study, said Jean Duncan, director of Transportation and Stormwater Services.

The city is looking to modernize and expand on what it already has — a system HART operates but the city owns, Duncan said.

“It could possibly include right-of-way acquisition. There could be a turning situation or station situation that requires a little more (land) than we have.”

The first phase should take six to eight months, Duncan said. “We’ll land on more of an official schedule as we go.”

Public demand for better alternative transportation and expected growth in the downtown region are driving the study.

“We know we have growth facing us and we just can’t keep bringing more vehicles and building more parking garages” in downtown Tampa, she said.

“We have newer residents who might opt not to have a car and the streetcar as it exists is not as functional as it could be. If we could extend it and modernize it and make it a true transportation mode choice, it will bring it to its full potential.”

All of this should lend itself to the creation of a seamless transportation system, Duncan said.

The city is coordinating with the state Department of Transportation, HART and the county, “and we have a very close working relationship with everyone and frequent coordination meetings.”

Go Hillsborough could take all of this to the next level, Duncan said.

“But whether the referendum is successful or not, we still have a good plan and know how our resources can complement each other.”

HART is also working to get money for an eight-county fare box system that commuters can use to pay for travel on any bus system in the region.

HART is working as a partner with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the state transportation department, and the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority to get federal and possibly state money for the project.

“We’re laying the groundwork for success on all of this,” Eagan said. “We’ll see what makes sense for our region. We have excellent relationships and this is the time to think big and to be regional.”

Working regionally is key to getting the state transportation department to pull this all together with the construction of a couple of intermodal stations where all these transit options would intersect, allowing commuters to easily get from one to the other.

Since the state rolled out plans last year for express toll lanes on Interstates 265 and 4, it has begun studying some concessions to the development plan in response to opposition from hundreds of people who live along its border.

The state transportation department has been holding a series of meetings with the public on how to ease the impact of the toll lane construction.

One result has been a plea for more and better transit, said Debbie Hunt, the department’s director of transportation development. As a result, the agency is studying whether to add more north-south and east-west buses during construction, and has said it will allow express buses to use the toll lanes at no charge, if they are built.

The transportation department does not yet have money or legislative approval for the express toll lanes, but is pushing to get it within a couple of years.

The transportation agency has also purchased two sites for intermodal stations that could help orchestrate various types of transit, Hunt said. It purchased the old Morgan Street city jail in 2006 for $3.9 million and in January bought the land beneath the DoubleTree hotel and Charley’s Steakhouse next to I-275 for $45 million.

Those parcels could be used as a place where commuters switch from a bus to a streetcar to light rail or the airport people mover.

Hunt said all forms of “premium transit” are being considered, which could eventually connect Pasco and Pinellas with the Hillsborough system.

Those intermodal stations won’t be built until all of the rest of this is ironed out, she said, but their purchase shows a major commitment by the DOT.

Said Hunt, “There is a lot being looked at in a short period.”

©2016 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.