Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gentlemen, start your (reconstruction) engines!

Just when you thought all is said and done on Interstate 4, another interstate reconstruction project is just about to get underway.

Did I say another interstate reconstruction project? Yes! Those projects where we have to dodge the construction barrels and barricades, endure heavier than normal traffic and reduced speed limits, not to mention the temporary roadways that will be in place as the project progresses.

Only this time, it's on Interstate 275 in Tampa from SR 60 (Exit 39) to the Hillsborough River just west of Ashley/Tampa/Scott Streets (Exit 44). However, the project is being done in three stages with the first stage from Himes Avenue eastward to the Hillsborough River (according to the folks at the Florida DOT at their Tampa Bay Interstates site, Interstate 275 from Exit 39 to the Hillsborough River was supposed to be done as one big project but the bids came in too high; instead, the FDOT decided to break up this project into three segments for cost reasons). So, here's the scoop on what will take place over the next few years from what I understand so far:

1. Construct the new northbound lanes using newly acquired right of way.

2. Once the new northbound lanes are open, direct traffic onto the new northbound lanes. At the same time, convert the existing northbound lanes into temporary southbound lanes.

3. Demolish the existing southbound lanes and construct new southbound lanes.

4. Once the new southbound lanes are open, demolish the existing northbound lanes.

Once this segment from Himes Avenue (Exit 41C) to the Hillsborough River is done, start with the next segment. However, I am not sure if the FDOT will be doing the segments concurrently or staggered (in other words, work on one segment at a time or do the segments with three different contractors basically at the same time).

Once this is said and done on all three Interstate 275 segments, we should see eight lanes of travel, four lanes northbound and four lanes southbound plus a spacious median which can accommodate light rail or commuter rail based transit.

Did I say light rail or commuter rail based transit?

There was a recent Bay News 9 Viewer Center iPoll on 6 August 2007 asking viewers if the construction on Interstate 275 will make a difference as to traffic congestion in the Tampa Bay area when all is said and done. According to a response I posted, I think in the short term the improvements to Interstate 275 should address the traffic congestion issue but in the long run, it is not going to work without the introduction of rail-based mass transit.

Rail based mass transit is desperately needed in the Tampa Bay area for a lot of reasons, and the one chief reason is growth. We have commuters who live out there in the suburbs (like New Tampa, Carrollwood, Lutz and Palm Harbor just to name a few) and work in places such as downtown Tampa or downtown St. Petersburg or even in the Carillon area of northeast St. Petersburg. Why? You can thank unaffordable housing for one thing because most areas close to work are probably out of the price range, thereby having to live so far away and commute a long distance to work daily. We need a rail based mass transit system that will serve the three principal communities of the Tampa Bay area - Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater - supplanted by a system of feeder buses that will run between the smaller communities and the nearest rail station for a seamless commute to and from work. Don't forget the weekends and holidays too!

When we get Interstate 275 all said and done as to the proposed reconstruction we as a Tampa Bay area should seriously consider looking at rail based mass transit. The wide medians on the newly reconstructed segments of Interstate 4 and (coming soon) Interstate 275 should allow for the implementation of a rail based mass transit system. On the other hand, I came up with a drawing of what could happen if out transit needs go unchecked and we have to eventually expand Interstate 275 to at least 20 lanes:

After all, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale has rail based mass transit. So does Washington DC and Baltimore. So does Los Angeles. Don't forget, Orlando is getting rail based mass transit soon. But if we Tampa Bay area residents don't do anything about fixing our transit issues after Interstate 275 is reconstructed this is what navigating the Tampa Bay area will be like: New York City without the subway or commuter rail (and imagine the gridlock).


Alex/Tampa said...

I'll respectfully disagree with your assessment on light rail in the Tampa Bay area. Personally, I love mass transit, when it makes sense. I almost exclusively use public transit while working in NYC. It's efficient, inexpensive, and goes where I want to go.
Unfortunately the city planners of Hillsborough County had no master plan when it came to development particularly in the areas you've mentioned (Lutz, New Tampa, etc). The area is too spread out, too few main roads, no central business areas. As a result, there are no practical routes for public transit, especially rail.

For example, let's take New Tampa to Downtown. Probably the simplest of routes. Run a rail up and down Bruce B Downs to downtown. Great. I can get from BBD to downtown, but how do I get to BBD from my house? Walk 30+ minutes? Bike 15+ minutes and then try to figure out where to put a bike? Drive to the station? Then wait 10+ minutes? By the time all of this is done it's far faster and will probably be cheaper to take a car, even in light of rising gas prices.

For other areas of Tampa the problems are even worse. So the rail link would get me from one place to another, but then what? These rail lines are expected to run down the center of major highways and major roads. Not near buildings and places people can walk to. So I'd need access to a car once I left the rail line.

I've seen (and tried to use) Miami/Fort Lauderdale's metro system. By all accounts, it's a failure. They charge $4 for parking at the Metrorail stations. $1.50 for a ticket each way. Considering the entire length of their system is 22 miles, just about every car on the road today can probably make the trip for less than $7/day. The other problem with Miami's system is that it doesn't go where people need it to.

I tossed various rail ideas around one night with a bunch of businessmen from both Orlando and Tampa, particularly regarding a high-speed rail between downtown Tampa & downtown Orlando with possibly a spur/stop to Disney. Reaction was mostly favourable, BUT with the way these cities are designed, the car is king. Everything else is an afterthought and would be problematic.

Just look at the Carillon area. Where would you put a station there? It's quite a hike from any one part of Carillon to another. Add in the usual afternoon monsoons and people just won't do it.

I wish I had a solution to the mess, but I honestly don't. Ultimately, big cities work because they're built for pedestrians and people generally live close to where they work. Sure, people working in NYC come from PA, CT, NJ, and even MA, but NYC itself was built for pedestrians, which is why it works. Shuttling people from one car-centric suburb to another car-centric suburb isn't going to work.

If there is a solution, it'll be found in technology. Tampa's traffic lights are on simple timers. Just upgrading this to an intelligent system that can respond to traffic conditions would fix many problems. I'm still shocked at how primitive traffic control in the Tampa Bay area is compared to many other smaller cities.

Maybe down the road we'll see mass transit on a more personal level, with rail cars that can leave the rails or mini-buses which can reach into smaller streets where the people and what people want to get to are.

Edward Ringwald said...


Thanks for your comments. However, there are some benefits that can be realized with a rail based mass transit system here in the Tampa Bay area.

First, most of the rail lines exist where the proposed rail system would be built. It encompasses the existing CSX freight lines that are in use today. Newer lines would be built on existing transportation corridors such as Interstate 275; after all, Interstate 275 when it's all reconstructed will feature a wide median to allow for rail based mass transit.

Realize too that the Tampa Bay area as a metropolitan region has no reliable mass transit system that exists today. This is why major companies do not want to relocate to the Tampa Bay area.

From what I understand there would be feeder buses that will run a route in the area where a rail station would be located. This would make it a lot easier to get from home to the nearest rail station. Such feeder buses would operate in areas which would be near potential rail stations such as New Tampa.

As for the Carillon area of St. Petersburg, there are plans for a rail station which would connect downtown Tampa with downtown St. Petersburg using the center of Interstate 275. Again, concerns regarding summer thundershowers would be addressed by feeder buses serving the area.

You may think that the car is king, and that is so here in the Tampa Bay area compared to Washington, DC and New York City where rail based mass transit is the rule. Think about it: The price of gasoline peaked at $4.00 a gallon a while ago; just imagine when gasoline peaks at $8.00 a gallon or more. With lack of a reliable rail based mass transit system, people will either move closer to their place of employment or just leave the region entirely. Believe me, when the price of gasoline peaks so high that it makes a deep cut into people's budgets, people will find ways to save money.

Edward Ringwald, Webmaster