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The future of Tampa Bay transit: Are we putting all our eggs in one basket?

There could be as many as 5 million more people in Florida in just over 10 years. Are we ready?

TAMPA -- The future of transportation in Tampa Bay is still unknown. There have been some developments recently like the possibility of bus rapid transit, but there isn’t a master plan yet. With light rail excluded from the conversation, how can we solve the traffic nightmare?

There could be as many as 5 million more people in the state of Florida by 2030, according to the Florida Chamber of Commerce. One big draw to the state is jobs, but workers have to be able to get to their job first.

“It’s been a challenge. It really has,” said Jim Jerome.

Jerome recently moved to Hudson from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He and his wife chose to buy a home in Hudson because it was affordable, but they didn’t anticipate the transportation struggle.

"We want to work in Tampa, but there's not an opportunity to drive without being on the road for an hour or hour and a half each way,” said Jerome.

The momentum in Tallahassee is to spend billions of dollars on new interstate express lanes. Plans may include Bus Rapid Transit, too. Lawmakers hope those band-aids address the problems until autonomous cars bail us out and solve long term problems. Is this putting all our eggs in one basket?

“An express bus or BRT makes a lot of sense, but not by itself," said Dr. Robert Bertini, Director of The Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

Dr. Bertini believes our area only has pieces of the solution.

"We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket. We want to embrace and value the diversity of uses in the transportation system," he said.

One leader driving things forward is Republican Senator Dana Young. She is pushing for a bill that would fund $60 million for high-tech solutions like autonomous vehicles and rapid buses. The money would come from projects that didn’t pass.

“It was primarily geared toward high speed rail and passenger rail systems. There are plenty of opportunity through [The Florida Department of Transportation] to fund those types of projects, but what we decided we need is a funding source for alternative transportation," said Senator Young.

She said autonomous vehicles could solve many of our traffic problems. However, that can’t be our only answer. Take Minneapolis, for example, where Jim is from.

“In Minneapolis, transit is king. You park your car at the Park and Ride, hop on a bus, and go into downtown.”

Minneapolis has a bus system, light rail, and commuter rail. The city’s transportation system connects the entire metropolis. Tampa Bay still needs a comprehensive plan that considers the whole area.

“Our job as transportation professionals is to create more options for people as opposed to taking them away. We need to come up with our own solution. We need to harness the power of the region and leadership to come up with a solution, “ said Dr. Bertini.

Here is a timeline of current and future transit projects in Tampa Bay:

- Tampa Bay Next: The Florida Department of Transportation is still getting feedback for a study that will reevaluate toll lanes on Interstate 275 through Tampa. No decisions will be made until the study is completed in 2020.

- Veteran’s Expressway: The first project includes adding toll lanes on the Veteran’s Expressway between Dale Mabry Highway and Gunn Highway. These will open in Spring 2018. The second project includes adding a fifth southbound lane from State Road 60 to Tampa International Airport. This will be completed in 2019.

- Gateway Express Lanes: The “Gateway” area is in Pinellas County. The $545 million project will add toll lanes to 12 miles of roadways. It is expected to be complete in 2021.

- I-275 through Westshore Area: This project costs $25 million and will add a third lane in both directions of Interstate 275 from West Shore Boulevard to Dale Mabry Highway. It is expected to be complete in 2020.

- Selmon Expressway Extension: This $236 million project will add a 1.9 mile toll lane to the median of Gandy Boulevard. It is expected to be complete by Fall 2020.

- The Howard Frankland Bridge: The $750 million project includes building a new eight-lane bridge complete with two toll lanes in both directions and pedestrian and bike paths. Expected to be completed in 2024.

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