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06/16/08 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

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Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) board members have been visiting each of the seven counties in the region to learn about local growth, financial, and transportation concerns. This morning they were in Hillsborough County to meet with city and county leaders at the County Center in downtown Tampa.

Last week, some members of TBARTA traveled to the cities of Charlotte, Dallas and Denver to see how those communities have created their successful mass transit systems.

Hillsborough County Commission Chair Ken Hagan is a member of the TBARTA Board. On Monday, Hagan praised the progress of his county’s transportation task force.

“Last year the task force recommended and the County Commission approved a $500-million short-term capital program which is multimodal to address many of our short-term needs.”

Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International Airport, said plans for airport expansion include the addition of a new terminal and runway by 2015. The airport is committed to having light rail run directly through the airport, with stations at the terminals, according to Miller.

“The beauty of it is it can get through the airport, it’s doable. And the Aviation Authority Board has committee we won’t do anything in our planning or building to stop this from happening. We won’t do anything to block this right-of-way from being there.”

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) CEO David Armijo pointed out that HART’s ridership has increased 25 percent in the last four years. He suggested expanding Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

But Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio interrupted Armijo’s presentation to say that according to what she learned in Charlotte, he was actually referring to an express bus service, and that BRT is only when there’s a designated lane just for busses.

“I think that historically, bus rapid transit has been promoted by people in this community who don’t want to see light rail. …”

HART’s Armijo responded to Iorio’s definition of BRT.

“Well, I would disagree, respectfully, in part because that is the federal guidelines. We do qualify for federal funding. We will be seeking a $19-million grant from the federal government. And we will be following the federal guidelines, which, in fact, does consider bus rapid transit. … You’re absolutely correct, if you have a fixed guideway, those things would run a lot a lot better, a lot faster, and that would certainly be an enhanced service.”

Iorio said she was not interested in spending $40 million on express bus routes.

“I frankly don’t think it’s a good expenditure of monies. I’m not on the [HART] board, but I wouldn’t be for it if I were on the [HART] board. We’ve got to be smart on how to spend our transit dollars. Yes we do have to expand our bus system and make it better, but let’s just call it what it is, it’s going to be an express bus service and it’s going to sit in the same traffic that everyone else is sitting it. Of course you don’t have to drive and get agitated, you can read the paper or be on your Blackberry, whatever you want to do. But it’s not going to have its own lane and it’s not going to whiz by the cars.”

Armijo said that by November, HARTline’s Route 30 between downtown Tampa and the airport would increase its frequency to every 15 minutes. One challenge that Tampa Bay faces is that there are seven different transit agencies in the region, TBARTA vice chair and Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan said.

“One of the several threads of commonality amongst Charlotte, Dallas and Denver, was the fact that that even though they were multijurisdictional … they started out with one bus operation. …”

Interim Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Authority Ray Chiaramonte said that the Tampa Bay region was one of only two of the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the country that does not have light rail and it’s in the works in the only other, Detroit. There is no truth to any of the excuses put forward for why the region around Tampa could not support mass transit, according to Chiaramonte.

“We’re the only city, really that does not have rail out of these cities mentioned. Comparable central city densities – many times we hear we don’t have the density here. We are just as dense, our central city, as any of these areas here. Some are not as dense; some are a little bit denser. We’re certainly in the radar screen and with the growth within the city of Tampa it’s only getting denser, you see that it’ll be about 3,600 people per square mile by 2025. We’re the 13th largest television market, 19th largest metro area and that’s not talking about the Greater Tampa Bay Area, that’s talking about just the four-county metro area.”

Chiaramonte said the cost of the ongoing project of adding lanes to I-275 through Tampa will be $700 million, so a similar investment in a rail system would be worth it, in part because of how accessible it would be.

A regional transit system could begin with a starter light rail project in Tampa. The Tampa rail project could be 21 miles of light rail powered by electricity and fed by up two and a half times the bus service as currently exists. Iorio said citizens might be able to vote on a referendum to fund the starter project as soon as 2010 and the first leg could be completed as soon as 2018.

“I very much over the next several years will be promoting as the starter line the USF/New Tampa area to downtown, downtown to Westshore, and then probably starter number two is Westshore through the airport. ... I just came back from this trip and one thing is very, very clear to me. If we don’t get on this right now and work to build light rail, we’re going to be left behind in a cloud of fumes from these other cities.”

There was room on the agenda for public comment, but no members of the public spoke at the meeting. The next TBARTA Board meeting will be at 9:30 a.m. June 27 at the Tampa Bay Golf & Country Club in San Antonio.

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

TBARTA – Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority

TBARTA draft regional transit master plan

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit

Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization –MPO

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