Across the bay in the fair city of Tampa, the local transit organization has taken a small step toward actually modernizing and improving one of the worst transit systems of any major city in this country.
Oh, it’s not HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit)’s fault the system is so awful … or at least, it’s not completely their fault. They serve a county with a large number of reactionary, knee-jerk anti-tax and anti-transit voters, most of whom live outside the city of Tampa itself. County voters are generally distrustful of anything having to do with the city, and they consistently vote down any project they perceive as benefiting Tampa more than Thonotosassa … and since Tampa has only about a third of the voters in Hillsborough County, the county usually wins. That’s what happened with the light rail referendum – county voters decided that since they weren’t going to ride a light rail system, then nobody should be able to. Of course, successful rail systems benefit non-riders too, by getting other drivers out of their cars and off the roads, but you’ll be wasting your breath trying to convince anyone of that in Fish Hawk Ranch.
So it’s good to see that HART didn’t just give up. Instead, they decided to focus on building Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service called MetroRapid, which they expect to be up and running within the year:
The buses will take 55 minutes on the 17.5-mile north-south run, averaging a little more than 19 mph. Stations will be spaced every half-mile to a mile, considerably farther apart than on conventional bus routes …
Construction on the first of the 59 stations with passenger amenities such as ticket vending machines is expected to get under way next week at Hidden River near Interstate 75.
Initially, the service will be offered between the northeast suburbs and downtown. An east-west route is envisioned, but not funded.
It makes sense to start with that route, as anyone who’s ever tried to drive in New Tampa during rush hour can attest. But they really do need that east-west route as well. Tampa and its suburbs are oriented more toward east-west travel, thanks largely to Interstate 4 and the Selmon Crosstown Expressway making it easier for new construction and growth to sprawl eastward. A BRT route heading out that way could complement the existing Express routes shuttling between downtown Tampa and Brandon.
Tampa isn’t really laid out in a way that is particularly conducive to a smaller, less expensive light rail system (which is the only kind that would ever get approved there), which is why I’ve often thought that BRT might be the answer to that city’s transit question. The startup costs are lower, for one thing. For another, many BRT systems use dedicated stations that are more permanent than a standard bus stop.
This can help encourage transit-oriented development in a way that a local bus route cannot, since the BRT stops are more difficult (but by no means impossible) to move – which means that under the right conditions, a BRT system can act very much like a light rail system, at a fraction of the cost.
So even if having to settle for BRT disappoints some light rail advocates, it’s still better than what Tampa has now. It’s still a step in the right direction. And if it’s successful, it may soften county attitudes toward transit in general … and maybe they’ll be more willing to consider light rail in the future.