2015 was a big year when it came to transportation matters; not just in the Tampa Bay area, but also in the Hampton Roads, VA and New York City, NY areas, and other parts of the globe. Let’s first take a look at what made the headlines in 2015, then I’ll go through what we can look forward to in 2016.
Whether it’s the monumental terminal expansion project at Tampa International Airport, the start of the Gandy Freeway project, or the framework for a regional transit farecard system; here are the movers and shakers that made 2015 a memorable year for transportation in Tampa Bay.
In an effort to move towards a more environmentally sustainable future, HART purchased 22 CNG-powered 40-foot Gillig Low Floor transit buses. These buses, while similar in many ways to their counterparts from 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013, the buses are able to travel without spewing about dirty diesel fumes. The buses also have more comfy seating and a smooth ride, which are enjoyed by customers like myself. HART is aiming to purchase more of these buses in the future, with 13 already on the docket for 2016 and 53 more on the planning books should state funding allow.
It was originally envisioned that by this time, Tampa International Airport (or TPA Airport) would be preparing to build its second terminal complex. However, the economic downturn of 2008 and the subsequent consolidation of the airline industry – which brought upon the mergers of the six “legacy carriers” Delta, Northwest, Continental, United, American, and US Airways – forced the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority to effectively cancel those grand expansion plans and instead re-focus its resources on modernizing and expanding the current terminal complex that opened to passengers in 1971.
The ongoing construction will bring forth immense improvements in the passenger experience, as well and the layout of the airport complex. Such improvements include new shops and restaurants, a new rental car center, and a people mover line that will connect that new center to the main terminal. Additionally, plans are in the works to gut out the entire third level of the main terminal (pictured above) and implement a new layout that will have some shops in kiosks and other retailers and eateries on the outer banks of the building. Two new outdoor terraces are also being constructed on the east and west ends of Level 3, and each of the concourses will see upgrades in some form.
Longer range plans call for the construction of a new Airside D, the relocation of the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower, and a possible extension of the people mover line from the rental car center to a multimodal hub that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is proposing as part of its plans to bring toll lanes to I-275.
2015 also brought upon significant news in the future of the TECOline Streetcar in Tampa. In April, FDOT announced that it would assist in funding a feasibility study to evaluate extending the streetcar through Downtown Tampa, allowing for an eventual upgrade to modern railcars and the foundation of a meaningful passenger rail network in Hillsborough County. For the past few years, especially due in large part to the recession, ridership on the streetcar has plummeted, forcing upon a cut in service and the depletion of an endowment that was originally set aside back in the early 2000s. Additionally, maintenance issues have resulted in nearly all of the railcars to be stalled at the barn until recently.
Once the study is complete, then the city – along with HART – can begin to evaluate where exactly will the extended line will travel and begin securing the funding that is needed to build the extension.
In an attempt to brush off a 2010 referendum loss, Hillsborough County officials have put together a new transportation referendum called Go Hillsborough, that aims to improve exiting roads, pedestrian/bike facilities, and transit elements throughout the county. While the foundations of the plan are good overall, I feel that not enough is being done to address the need for more transit funding on the local level. To make matters worse, the Go Hillsborough effort hit a major stumbling block during the summer by which consultant Beth Leytham and engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff were apparently conducting backroom dealings with county officials. Investigations are currently ongoing as to whether any wrongdoing was done in the process, but in the meantime…the chances of Go Hillsborough moving to the November, 2016 ballot remains slim if at best. County leaders are set to vote on whether the effort moves forward in February, 2016. In the meantime, support for the initiative has grown – with Visit Tampa Bay and the Tampa Downtown Partnership recently voicing their support.
That is a question that I’m still pondering. Back in October, I blogged about the news that CSX Transportation was considering selling off two of its key freight rail lines to FDOT to facilitate commuter rail service similar to SunRail. While I am happy that this development has come about, I remain heavily cautious as to whether it will happen. I’m also concerned that the prospect could possibly be a way for FDOT to force upon the unpopular toll lanes that they want to build along our interstates. I’ll be following this development closely as we enter 2016.
For the past several months now, HART has been working with other area transit agencies to bring forth a unified, regional, smart-card based fare structure. In late 2015, I received the news that HART is preparing to award which agencies will take part in the initial pilot project that will lay out the foundation for the new fare structure. However, the timing of the full launch of the initiative will depend of state funding. Last legislative session wound up being a circus with the budget and congressional map redistricting sagas, and unfortunately during this time, some of HART’s funding requests died in committee. I will be watching closely as to what the result will be and where the initiative goes from here.
As I recently blogged about, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) announced that it is planning a bus rapid transit corridor to run at least partially along the Central Ave Corridor. This route, which will likely be structured off of HART’s MetroRapid North-South Line, is seen as a consolation prize between transit supporters and advocates, like myself, and those who are heavily opposed to any form of passenger rail. While I applaud PSTA on the announcement and where this project will eventually go, I threw caution to the winds in my blog post that “BRT Lite” isn’t really the long-term solution to building a more viable and robust transit system for our region.
2015 brought upon the progression of both the Virginia Beach Light Rail Extension Study and the Naval Station Norfolk Light Rail Extension Study, both are very crucial to the future of transit in Hampton Roads. However, many divisions were exposed when it came to the Virginia Beach Light Rail project, as there are many supporters going against those who are opposed to extending the light rail line from Norfolk to the seaside municipality – or building any form of passenger rail at all. For the region’s bus system, while there were some new buses that arrived during the course of 2015, Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) continues to face funding challenges to replace its aging bus fleet. These challenges will continue to persist through 2016.
2015 brought upon the progression of several key construction projects throughout the New York City Subway system. The Second Ave Subway Phase I and the Long Island Rail Road East Side Access project continue to progress, with both on track to open by 2017 and 2022 respectively (though these timeframes can change). In addition, work to restore services and stations following SuperStorm Sandy continue; including work to restore and reopen the “newer” South Ferry subway station. Work on South Ferry will continue through the first half of 2016, with a projected reopening sometime in 2017.
Among other significant developments in the NYC area; the opening of the Line 7 subway extension to Hudson Yards, the continuation of the construction of the new Port Authority World Trade Center Transportation Hub (projected to open sometime in 2016), and the continuation of the construction of the new Line 1 Cortlandt St Station (projected to open sometime in 2018).
If this wasn’t a good way to end the year, then I don’t know what is. For the first time in over a decade, both chambers of Congress passed a long term transportation funding bill that will include money for both roads and public transit, known as the The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act or “FAST Act”. For the past several years now, Congress has been relying on general fund transfers and other short term measures to fund federal transportation needs. This method has not been going well with much of the populace here in the US because we’ve continued to see roads and bridges crumble as well as public transit become more and more defunded as ridership continues to rise. While the FAST Act isn’t perfect, it is getting us somewhere.
For additional information of the FAST Act, please visit the USDOT website.
As we head into 2016, there are many predictions as to which projects and initiatives could move ahead, which transit services will be launched, and what kinds of developments that we may see within local, state, and federal governments. I will be having a full rundown of what to look out for in 2016 up very soon!
It is also a crucial year when it comes to elections, so I strongly encourage everyone to register to vote and to actively participate in the election process.