Dedicated bus lanes combined with tolls could ease Tampa congestion

06/14/13 Janelle Irwin
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Dedicated bus lanes may be a way to ease traffic congestion in the Tampa Bay area. The lanes would also be available to individual drivers who choose to pay a toll in order to avoid stop and go traffic.

The exact model being studied by the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority hasn’t been done anywhere else in the country. But so far it looks like a viable way to speed up commutes along busy corridors. Bob Frey is the agency’s planning director.

“It provides you with time certainty. You know that you can get to A to B based on the price of the toll.”

The Expressway Authority received a federal grant to conduct a concept study. Depending on where the Bus Toll Lanes are added, both drivers and buses using the lanes would be guaranteed to move at a minimum speed. That typically would run around 50 mph. Frey said there aren’t any plans yet to add lanes to transportation corridors, but if that happens the most successful areas would be ones that suffer the most congestion.

“BTL is basically an urban treatment. You need to have the number of vehicles and cars trying to go to downtown, the congestion that would make a toll attractive.”

Under the concept study, bus fare on the toll lanes would be cheaper than other routes. Individual driver fees would depend on congestion – as the lanes fill up, rates go up. The plan is likely to be more palatable to taxpayers weary of increased transit spending. Kevin Thurman is with the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay. He said Bus Toll Lanes would benefit everyone on the road.

“That would allow – those toll lanes would allow you to have a bus that comes every ten minutes for a dollar that would allow you to get from Apollo Beach to Westshore. So, in reality this actually makes it significantly cheaper for people and it allows people who are willing to pay more money to drive from one place to the next to be able to pay more money to do that. All at the same time, the existing capacity still exists for people to be able to drive and so quite frankly, it actually adds a ton of capacity and it gives more options for people and makes it cheaper to get from point A to point B – for most people.”

On some roads existing lanes could be converted, while others would require constructing new lanes. Agencies would also have to build overhead pay stations similar to the no-stop Sun Pass tolls. Regardless, the capital investment would be minimal compared to other transit undertakings. Once set up though, the Expressway Authority’s Frey said this version of managed lanes is more sustainable than some other models.

“Traditionally their problem has been operation to maintenance costs – how do you sustain the system on the long term? And for a toll road or a price-managed lane like the toll road we’re talking about, from the toll industry’s perspective, it’s the capital cost upfront on building the system.”

That’s because the longer the infrastructure is in place, the more potential operating agencies have to bring in revenue.

“The combination of the transit/passenger fares and the toll revenues as the transit fair box that provides additional revenues to transit to operate their system.”

Connect Tampa Bay’s Thurman said the proposal is welcomed by his group, which pushes for expanded transit options.

“Normally when we’re talking about building any kind of transportation infrastructure, we always talk about it just for cars or just for another mode of transportation. This is using the same investment to give people more than one option to get from one place to the next.”

During the TBARTA meeting Friday, board members also approved a shining annual review of its executive director, Bob Clifford. The board is considering a one time 1% bonus – about $1500 – in addition to a 3% pay raise on Clifford’s $150,000 salary. Board member Hugh McGuire said it will be Clifford’s first raise in quite some time.

“We do feel that Mr. Clifford has passed up – voluntarily, on his own – any request for any kind of a raise over the three years and yet when you look at our program of work and the projects that we are undertaking and the success that we’re having and have had over that period of time – we’re doing pretty good.”

The proposal, which has not been voted on yet, would also include 3% raises for all TBARTA employees, adding about $16,000 to the board’s budget.

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