Ground broken on MetroRapid stops along Nebraska Avenue - next year those buses will get traffic light priority

08/06/12 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County officials broke ground today on what will soon be the county’s version of bus rapid transit. MetroRapid will run along Nebraska Avenue from the USF area to downtown Tampa quicker than other bus lines. Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman hopes the route will be a boost for ridership when it is completed next year.

“We are taking a very big step with bus rapid transit to really get it moving forward and really send the message that riding the bus is a really cool thing to do.”

A GPS device called Transit Signal Priority makes MetroRapid buses different from others owned and operated by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART. It sends a signal to approaching light that changes the signal to green. Beginning at Fletcher Avenue, the route runs 17 and a half miles to the Marion Transit Center in downtown. Murman, who is also on the HART board of directors, said the connection along Nebraska Avenue was a good place to start.

“It’s going to be connecting two huge employment centers and that’s really what matters to Hillsborough County – it’s economic development, it’s jobs, getting people to work.”

When the concept for MetroRapid was first batted around, officials considered offering wireless hotspots at stations or even WiFi in the buses. Those plans have been scrapped because a study showed the demand didn’t warrant the cost. But according to HART, stations will be built with infrastructure to eventually add signs showing when the next bus might arrive. Hillsborough County devoted more than $30 million to HART to complete the project after voters rejected a tax to fund it. But HART CEO Philip Hale said after some re-evaluation, the county will likely get 7 or 8 million of that back.

“To be blunt, I went in and we hired a new CFO just recently, about six months ago, we set down, we went through a detailed analysis, we started scrubbing it and we realized that by tweaking some of the things that we’re doing, we could probably get this done and save the county some money.”

The county could use the refund to help pay for the next phase of the project – another MetroRapid route that would run along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That decision hasn’t been made yet. Hale said the East/West line is still a ways off.

“We’re doing thirty percent design now. We’d have to demonstrate that we have funding to complete the project – speaking with Commissioner Murman today, our intent is to probably try to submit a needs assessment for the East/West to see if we can carry it to the next step. Until we get the needs assessment done and the ridership numbers finalized, right now it’s basically a study.”

But the ground breaking ceremony was held at the intersection of Nebraska and MLK because HART chair Fran Davin said, someday, it will be a huge public transit hub.

“This intersection will be the connection point to make East/West and North/South – and the East/West is the second phase – work together to provide an integrated system.”

The station being built on the southeast corner of that intersection sits on an easement that belongs to Walgreen's. HART is using what’s called eminent domain to take over the land to build the station. It will be complete with restrooms, shelter and ticket sales. But transit authority CEO Hale said they’re trying not to take over private land when possible.

“As we were selecting our stations and locations – we are trying to develop it in such a way that we don’t have to utilize eminent domain as least as we possibly can. There are a couple of occasions we might have to, but we’re working very hard with the land owners to make sure that we don’t have a negative impact on their property, at the same time meet the demands of the transit system and make it successful.”

Essie Sims Junior is chair of the East Tampa partnership. He’s been an integral part of making MetroRapid a reality. Sims said all he really did was make sure the community had the ability to tell officials what they needed in public transportation.

“We’ve invited the HART employees and directors to come out and give us input as to what was going to be happening in our community in the near future. So, I’ve been facilitating meetings where the HART representatives have been out and have been really informative as to giving our community information as to what they see coming down the road.”

Sims said the project will improve aesthetics along the Nebraska Avenue corridor which he hopes will have a positive trickle effect on communities.

“Second, it will get our residents to work a little bit faster. For those that may travel north on this particular corridor, the bus service itself will be able to get people to jobs faster and also cause people to be able to be employed hopefully.”

Both HART and Hillsborough County officials praised Sims for his work on the project. But Sims said the work isn’t over yet.

“I have a ad hoc committee from our partnership that I instructed about several months ago to kind of follow along with this process as it’s going through the different phases and that way we’re continuing to report back to our community. And also, I’ll be a hands on individual as well.”

The route won’t have a dedicated lane which differentiates it from the narrowest definition of Bus Rapid Transit. Regardless, the Transit Signal Priority technology paired with fewer bus stops will make the commute along the Nebraska corridor 10-15 percent shorter. Park and ride lots will be built at both ends of the north/south route and bike racks available at all other stops along the corridor.

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