There’s been a lot of movement in the transit realm again in the Tampa Bay Area, and it’s not necessarily just the discussion with Go Hillsborough. On the Pinellas side, a key transit project that was once a part of Greenlight Pinellas is back in the forefront, and hopes to be able to change people’s minds about the way they use and view public transit.
That project is known as the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit Corridor.
The Central Avenue corridor in St. Pete has long been seen as one of the top transit corridors for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) and currently has the popular Central Ave Trolley running along it. Some people will ask right off the bat, “why BRT along Central Ave, when you have a trolley already?”. The answer is very simple; the trolley is primarily aimed at tourists, though many residents and other commuters like to use it too (myself included). However, PSTA has been eyeing a faster, limited stop, way to get people from the beaches and into downtown St. Pete…and vice versa. The portion of Central Ave that runs east of 31st St N dwindles down from four to two lanes, and isn’t able to support optimal bus service without bearing the risk of heavy congestion. On the other hand, 1st Ave N and 1st Ave S between Pasadena Ave S and downtown St. Pete are vital three-lane roads that currently function as one-way streets; 1st Ave N runs westbound and 1st Ave S runs eastbound. It is these two streets that will be used for a portion of the line. From 58th St N and westward, there are three divergent alignments that take shape. Two of them would continue along both of these streets to Pasadena Ave S and split off from there – one traveling down Pasadena Ave S and the Corey Causeway while the other continues along Central Ave over the Treasure Island Causeway. The third divergent alignment heads northward on 58th St N to 5th Ave N and Tyrone Blvd, crossing the Tom Stuart Causeway. You can see a better overview of all three route proposals via a Google Map that I created. I will be posting official maps from PSTA when they become available.
Now, I stress that while some people may be looking at this project as possible “True” BRT model – with dedicated lanes, it is very likely going to instead be structured off of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART)’s MetroRapid North-South Line, which opened in 2012 and operates in mixed traffic. This method of rapid transport has become known by some as “BRT Lite”, because it integrates elements of “True” BRT, such as stylized stations, bus queue jump lanes, and Transit Signal Priority (or TSP), but keeps buses in normal traffic lanes for much of the route. While this is a downer for transit advocates like myself, who want to see “True” BRT services be implemented sooner than later, the Tampa Bay Region simply does not have the infrastructure available to execute such lines – this will require many vital arteries to be reconstructed. So it’s better in this sense, and also on the cost front, to start out with “BRT Lite”, rather than go all in for a “True” BRT corridor. Upgrades to 1st Ave N and 1st Ave S for instance, can be done later on that would allow for dedicated bus lanes to be constructed.
One thing that we’re likely to see for sure out of this project is more Real-Time bus information integration. If funding allows, we will likely see dynamic Real-Time bus information screens at each station, something that HART was not able to accomplish with the MetroRapid North-South Line due to funding constraints.
Will this be a game-changer for transit in Pinellas?
There is no doubt that with the downfall of Greenlight Pinellas in 2014, that any kind of “BRT Lite” line will change the landscape for PSTA and the way that people commute throughout Pinellas. MetroRapid was already on the books when Moving Hillsborough Forward was launched in 2009 and subsequently failed in 2010. HART then made MetroRapid a top priority, knowing that light rail was out of their reach for the moment. However, PSTA must learn from the shortcomings of MetroRapid and how it isn’t running as efficiently as some would like it to, the latter by which I’ve discussed previously. Choosing the correct alignment will no doubt play a key role to the line’s success, and will definitely be key to determining other “BRT Lite” and Express routes in other areas of the county. Another possible game-changer, is a similarly planned line for State Road 60 between Clearwater Beach and Tampa International Airport, which I’ll discuss in another post, since this route could either turn out to be a “BRT Lite” line, or an ultra express route.
Is “BRT Lite” the answer for transit agencies?
Not really. Though it is a short-term stepping stone so-to-speak when it comes to building a more robust transit system, “BRT Lite” is not a cure-all for situations where “True” BRT or passenger rail could be more viable. However, in a climate where sales tax referendums are apparently fizzling out in Florida as of late, “BRT Lite” can become a win-win between transit supporters and advocates, and also fiscal conservatives who loathe any form of passenger rail.