TAMPA Some call it Bus Rapid Transit – HART’s MetroRapid bus service that begins Tuesday with expectations it can lead Tampa toward a modern urban transportation system.
Others label MetroRapid as Bus Rapid Transit Lite -- a comparatively inexpensive consolation prize for funding neither light rail nor exclusive bus-only corridors like those in “gold standard” BRT cities.
Either way, the MetroRapid system between downtown and the northeast suburbs is bound to be successful, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority officials say. And with good reason.
MetroRapid will partially supplant HART’s busiest run, Route 2 along Nebraska and Fletcher avenues, traveling the 17.5-mile stretch in about 55 minutes. That’s more than 15 percent faster than local buses, using technology to extend green traffic signals and shorten red lights and stopping only at special MetroRapid stations.
The initial North-South line could lead to another five MetroRapid routes HART planners mapped out to improve transit after the 2010 Hillsborough County referendum failure to fund the area’s first light-rail line and other transportation projects.
But whether MetroRapid will shape Hillsborough County’s transit planning for years to come remains to be seen. That will depend on its performance and understanding what HART’s version of BRT can and cannot achieve — compared with more expensive light rail or Bus Rapid Transit systems that operate in bus-only corridors.
HART consultants originally labeled MetroRapid planning documents as a BRT system, but HART has since focused on the branding to differentiate the new service from its conventional routes.
“MetroRapid will show the benefit of transportation that draws on the effectiveness of what a properly designed and operating bus system can provide,” said Philip Hale, HART’s chief executive.
Hale said there basically is no difference between MetroRapid and BRT. He points to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report that shows that similar to Tampa’s MetroRapid, only five of 20 U.S. BRT projects use dedicated or semi-dedicated bus lanes.
“MetroRapid will have special stations, off-bus fare collections at the largest stations to speed boarding, special branding and marketing and ITS (Intelligent Transportation System) features, including technology to shorten red traffic signals and extend green lights,” Hale said.
It will average around 19 mph from end-to-end and share city streets with regular traffic. Its 59 station stops, counting those in either direction, will be spaced every 2,600 feet to 4,000 feet, compared with every 750 feet to 1,250 feet on local bus routes.
A new park-and-ride facility at MetroRapid’s northeast terminus in the Hidden River Corporate Park near Interstate 75 is expected to draw new passengers.
“For the rest of this fiscal year, we anticipate MetroRapid carrying 250,000 passengers, and 800,000 next fiscal year,” HART spokeswoman Sandra Pinto said.
The combination of MetroRapid and Route 2 passengers in fiscal 2014 is expected to result in 1.4 million trips, an increase of 200,000 beyond what was expected from Route 2 by itself.
“There will be a net gain between the two services, but it is likely to take two years for MetroRapid to fully mature,” Pinto said.
Because Route 2 buses will not stop at MetroRapid stations, HART will provide two weeks of free MetroRapid service until June 10.
That will ensure passengers both get to try the new service and get through any difficulties in choosing which route suits their needs before the standard $2, one-way bus fare kicks in on MetroRapid.
“This also helps ease the transition for passengers on Route 2, who are used to their local bus coming every 15 minutes but effective June 10, Route 2 will go to a half-hourly frequency,” Pinto said.
Route 2 buses will not stop at MetroRapid stations, but MetroRapid stops between the Marion and University Area transit centers have a Route 2 stop nearby.
“The bigger challenge is for passengers who get on MetroRapid and don’t realize that it doesn’t make every local stop on Nebraska,” Pinto said.
The GAO report that studied how BRT can improve transit service and contribute to economic development said 13 of 15 U.S. projects that supplied data reported ridership increases after one year of service and reduced average travel times of 10 to 25 percent.
But even with increases in ridership, U.S. BRT projects usually carry fewer total riders than rail transit projects and international BRT systems, many of which enjoy exclusive bus lanes, the report said.
The GAO said most local officials nationwide believe rail transit has a greater economic development potential than buses near the sites chosen for stations.
But if developers perceive there is permanence to a BRT route, which can occur through investments in distinctive stations like the largest MetroRapid bus stops, it’s possible that nearby improvements would occur, the GAO said.
A HART committee headed by City Councilman Mike Suarez is studying transit-oriented development opportunities for MetroRapid.
Tampa’s MetroRapid plan is similar to a successful strategy Nashville has employed by beginning with modest projects in busy corridors, using conventional, 60-foot articulated buses that made half as many stops as the local service.
“We chose to call our concept BRT Lite because our routes did not operate in designated lanes,” said Patricia Harris-Morehead, communications chief for the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Then Nashville conducted a year-long study on how to improve transit in a busy corridor through the heart of downtown, considering light rail, heavy rail, street cars and a true BRT system, with dedicated lanes for 80 percent of the route.
The BRT option with exclusive lanes for buses was selected and the new system that could begin in 2016 is expected to save 20 percent travel time over auto traffic.
The proposed Nashville BRT with exclusive bus lanes estimated $174 million for capital costs for the 7.1-mile corridor, compared with HART spending $31 million for design, land acquisition and construction, $2 million for transit signal priority equipment and $1.75 million for the Fletcher Park-n-Ride on a route more than twice as long as Nashville’s true BRT.
HART board member Karen Jaroch said that expensive exclusive lanes should not be needed on the city streets where MetroRapid will operate because of the signal changing technology.
“That is what makes MetroRapid relatively inexpensive compared with those using exclusive lanes,” she said.
But MetroRapid could take advantage of managed lanes the Florida Department of Transportation is planning on the local interstates that buses could share with other vehicles willing to pay a toll for traveling on a less crowded, faster traffic lane.
“This is just the first step,” Hillsborough County commissioner and HART commissioner Mark Sharpe said. “MetroRapid will provide quality service at a low cost.
“Once that’s accomplished, we can study other kinds of systems to determine what works best for the future.”