Hillsborough County lags in transportation improvements

10/10/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Transportation, HART, transit, TBARTA, Hillsborough County, psta, Sunrail, Polk Transit


Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn listens on as transit officials lay out plans to make transit better throughout the region.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Hillsborough County is lagging behind other districts within the Tampa Bay region when it comes to transit improvements.Transit officials from Central Florida joined local planners during a transportation summit Thursday at the Tampa Airport Marriott.

SunRail is coming to the Orlando area as soon as next Spring. Pinellas County is hoping a transit referendum next year could fund something similar there. Polk County will also ask voters to fund transit improvements next year. Hillsborough has no such plan. Ronnie Duncan chairs the board of directors for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. He pulled a toilet seat out of a black garbage bag to make his point.

“And to my surprise, there are 26 different kinds of toilet seats that they sell at Home Depot. Some are padded. Some are hard. Some are green. Some are blue. Some open by themselves. Some have a mechanism on them that they won’t slam and how many of our kids have slammed the toilet seat in the middle of the night? We’ve all been there. Some of them almost flush themselves without you doing anything to them.”

So what does that have to do with transit?

“Some of you say, nothing. But, the real answer to the question is this: if you left Wesley Chapel this morning to come here, you only had one option – one transportation option to get here. If you live in St. Pete Beach and you had to come here this morning, you had one option. You didn’t have any real bus options, you didn’t have any transit options, you didn’t have any – you had no options other than to get in your car and use the roadways to get here.”

But Hillsborough is trying to jump on the wagon. Ray Chiaramonte is the executive director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission and Metropolitan Planning Organization. The groups launched a website called Imagine 2040 that gives Hillsborough County residents a chance to weigh in on what they want the county to look like for future generations.

“We have three scenarios: suburban dream, bustling metro, new corporate centers. [A] different focus on each one. Suburban dream is to expand the urban growth boundary, have more suburban areas, largely a more road-dependent type of scenario – rebuild major intersection. Bustling metro is to focus more on redevelopment, create new town centers along older commercial strips both in the urban part of the county and the urban parts of the county and the urban parts of Tampa and Plant City and Temple Terrace and obviously, more dependent on bus, rail and circulator shuttles, walk/bike connections. New corporate centers: develop new corporate centers on our interstate systems, on interchanges.”

It’s the first step in launching a campaign similar to what’s happening across the bay in Pinellas. The group is trying to garner public support by implementing an inclusive transit planning process. Pinellas started in late 2010 with a series of meetings with community leaders and select residents – a mish-mash of different interests were represented. Ultimately the process led to a campaign called Green Light Pinellas that is pushing the one cent sales tax referendum on the 2014 ballot.

“Now, I’ve been giving this presentation around the region now for the last, all summer and this is, like, my 105th presentation.”

That’s Brad Miller, CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. If the referendum is approved, the extra penny would replace some ad valorem taxes on home and business owners and would fund a comprehensive list of transit improvements. The plan could include light rail connecting downtown St. Pete through the mid-county Gateway area and north to Clearwater. Eventually the transit agency wants to connect that rail to Tampa when the Howard Frankland Bridge is replaced around 2025.

“For the first time, a direct express bus from Clearwater Beach to the Tampa Airport and from downtown St. Pete to the Tampa Airport – direct connections there.”

Officials in Polk County are gearing up for a nearly identical transit referendum. But instead of funding some kind of rail project, Tom Phillips, the executive director of Polk Transit, says improvements would cater to the county’s diverse needs by expanding bus service to new places, like Walt Disney World and Legoland.

“Polk County is the second most populous county for Disney cast members. It’s Osceola then Polk, not Osceola then Orange. According to Tom Palmer at the Ledger, at last count, 7,500 individuals live in Polk County, but earn their living at Disney.”

Polk transit also has to consider that more than a quarter of the population is what officials call “transit dependent.” Phillips says it’s not feasible to run extended bus service to accommodate people who have off-peak work hours. Instead, part of their transit plan would include taxi vouchers for people traveling after ten at night and before five in the morning. Riders would pay $5 for the voucher.

“Those taxi vouchers would be good for up to $15 on the meter. So, that individual can call the provider of their choice and that second or third shift worker, nurse or employee could get home with a subsidized taxi ride. If it goes over $15 on the meter, than that person would have to pay for the additional service.”

Central Florida has already broken ground on a major transit project called SunRail which will connect parts of Volusia County at the northern-most point and as far south as Osceola County in the South, through downtown Orlando. Harry Barley, executive director of MetroPlan Orlando says by next Spring there will be 32 miles of rail completed with 12 stations.

“For the first time, people are going to have a choice in terms of how they’re going to travel through the corridor. They’ll have a rail option with SunRail if they want to take advantage of that, they can use the traditional I-4 lanes or they can use the managed lanes.”

The SunRail project was green lighted by Governor Rick Scott around the same time he rejected nearly $2.5 billion from the federal government for high-speed rail connecting Tampa to Orlando. Half of the $615 million to get SunRail up and running is being footed by federal dollars with the other half spread equally between state and local funding. Other transit improvements are in store for Central Florida, but Barley says even things like managed lanes which drivers pay to use have trouble getting off the ground.

“In fact, the idea got kind of hijacked by some folks [who] don’t like a lot of the work we do and the word that got out is, they’re tolling I-4 which is not exactly correct, but you could see how easily it was misinterpreted that we were tolling I-4.”

Hillsborough County transit officials are looking into managed lanes that would have guaranteed run times between destinations. Users would pay based on the flow of traffic – during busy times the toll would likely be more expensive than at non-peak traffic hours. A public hearing is scheduled Thursday to discuss plans for replacing a span of the Howard Frankland Bridge. That meeting is at 5:00 p.m. Thursday at the Tampa Airport Marriott.

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Even Lakeland's bus system is more forward-thinking than Hillsborough! I think a lot of this has to do with mismanagement at HART. It's kind of fundamentally broken, has been for years, and HART needs to merge with PSTA. The state should force the merger, because HART will never agree to it. PSTA's leadership should take over the combined agency.