A proposed 41-mile, rapid transit line through Tampa hit a speed bump Monday when the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) board voted to keep the HART staff neutral and not involved in the public outreach effort.
While that sounds innocuous enough, the fact of the matter was that there was heavy sentiment against the so-called “regional transit feasibility plan” from advancing. However, even if the board had voted to reject the proposal, that would not stop the process from going forward.
First unveiled to the public last month in St. Petersburg, the project already earned thumbs up from two other regional transit organizations — the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area (TMA) Leadership Group and TBARTA.
Florida’s Department of Transportation is funding the plan, which is led by Jacobs Engineering, a local transit consulting firm.
Scott Pringle, the consulting project manager for Jacobs, gave a presentation to the board, explaining that his firm believes the 40.5-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) running from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg is a better plan than a 9-mile CSX rail project that would run through Tampa. A crucial factor is cost: the total bill for the I-275/BRT project would range between $380-$455 million.
The cost of the CSX project ranges from $490-$620 million.
Leading the opposition was Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp, who questioned why the study did not include a land use and economic development study. She said it was primarily an express bus system.
“Despite what you may have heard today, this is not in any way a ‘gold standard’ BRT,” Kemp said, referring to how it’s been marketed. “This is kind of express-bus-plus, operating in mixed traffic in most cases.”
Kemp was the lone vote opposing the project moving forward on the TBARTA board two weeks ago, but she was joined Monday by fellow County Commissioners Stacy White and Les Miller. Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez and board members Richard McClain and Adam Harden also opposed moving the project forward.
Suarez said the project didn’t include the elements of what make bus rapid transit systems, such as a dedicated lane in traffic and transit-oriented development around some of the proposed 21 stations.
Conversely, Murman repeated her declaration from the earlier TMA meeting that the proposal is “a great start.” She chastised colleagues for “a lot of negativism” before it goes before the general public for comment.
“This is a start, not an end,” Murman cautioned.
But White, who initially said he liked that the plan pushed BRT and not light-rail, said the lack of specific funding sources compelled him to oppose moving the project forward.
“Even this first step is an exercise in futility,” he quipped.
When informed that a vote opposing the project from moving forward wouldn’t stop it completely, Kemp expressed frustration.
“Why are we even discussing it?” she asked colleagues, saying that she serves on the TMA and TBARTA and realizes that none of them can impact the project — either behind closed doors or in public settings.
Miller, who chairs the Hillsborough MPO board, agreed with those concerns; the public deserved to weigh in before lawmakers begin to tinker with it, he said.
Citing White’s apprehension over lack of funding, Miller said at some point HART board members must decide on whether to raise the millage rate to begin paying for more service for Hillsborough County residents.
“Do we bite the bullet … even though there’s an anti-tax sentiment? How do we meet the needs of the citizens of Hillsborough County? I’m not talking about Pinellas; I’m not talking about Wesley Chapel. I’m talking about Hillsborough County.”
A public outreach effort — led by Jacobs Engineering — is slated to begin later this month and is scheduled to run through the summer. Pringle said outreach would include members of his team going to farmers’ markets and other locales — where the community is.