Friday, October 18, 2013

The end of the Motorist Aid Call Box in Florida?

The trusty, yet reliable motorist aid call box.  You see them on Interstate 275 as well as Interstate 75 and Florida's Turnpike.
These motorist aid devices that dot the Florida interstate landscape have been around for years.  If you broke down on, let's say Interstate 275 between Interstate 75 and Bearss Avenue (Exit 53) in Tampa or Interstate 75 and US 19 (Exit 5) in Bradenton, all you did was pull up to the nearest call box, pull the handle down, press the appropriate button for the service you needed such as police, medical or a tow truck, return to your car and safely wait for assistance.

I was surprised to find out that the Florida DOT is in the works of getting rid of the motorist aid call boxes on Florida's interstate highways come January 2014, according to this 10 News (WTSP-TV, the CBS affiliate here in St. Petersburg) article by reporter Kathryn Bursch.  In fact, the photo you see above was used in the article as well as the story that aired on 10 News!  (By the way, I was surprised when I got the phone call from Kathryn asking me for permission to use the above photo for the story she was developing about the Florida DOT getting rid of the call boxes - I thought the call boxes would stay in addition to the other motorist aid services offered to motorists on Florida's interstates - it was a great article by the way).
What I really think the Florida DOT is doing is a big mistake.  Why?
Realize that we live in an era of cell phones, BlackBerries and OnStar.  (Believe me, OnStar is the best communication item to have in your car since the invention of the automobile - if you need help such as a flat tire or you are involved in an accident, just press the OnStar emergency button and a representative is right there).  Things have changed since the emergency call boxes were installed on Florida's interstate highways by the Florida DOT many years ago, not to mention the many variable message signage, cameras and roving patrols by Florida DOT Road Rangers in several Florida areas.
However, there is a drawback to not having call boxes on Florida's interstate highways:
1.  You got a cell phone or OnStar?  Great!  Now what if you are in an area where there is no cellular coverage?  Your phone won't work and you want to be sure that you have access to help if needed.
2.  You are driving a car that does not have OnStar, and your cell phone battery went out on you.  If you are on a long, yet exit-less stretch of interstate highway such as the section of Interstate 75 in South Florida from Exit 101 to Exit 49 also known as the Alligator Alley, you better count on the nearest call box to come to your aid in case of an emergency.
There is an exit between Exits 101 and 49 on Interstate 75, and that's Exit 82, FL 29.  Unfortunately, there are no motorist services located at FL 29 - now there is a meaning to the black lettering on yellow background signs on southbound Interstate 75 before Exit 101 in Naples that tell you to check your fuel gauge, no services for the next 50 miles.
In short, motorist aid call boxes are like an insurance policy for your trip.  Unfortunately, the Florida DOT wants to take away this motorist safety aid in the name of saving money down the road.  However, there is no monetary savings realized if motorists can't have an opportunity to access any aid at the first opportunity.
However, there is one place where the motorist aid call boxes will remain:  The Sunshine Skyway Bridge, as these call boxes are actual phones that serve a dual purpose, not only for motorist aid but for crisis intervention as these phones connect directly to The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and are staffed 24/7/365 by trained counselors.
On a side note, thinking about pulling over onto the shoulder of the Sunshine Skyway's main span to get that great picturesque view of St. Petersburg or the Gulf of Mexico?  Don't!  Cameras monitored by the Florida Highway Patrol monitor both northbound and southbound traffic and any stopping on the shoulder will result in a Florida Highway Patrol trooper being sent out to investigate.  Instead, the rest areas on either end of the Sunshine Skyway main span provide great photo opportunities.
I think the Florida DOT is making a mistake by removing the motorist aid call boxes.  The motorist aid call boxes are peace of mind for motorists, especially motorists who do not even have a cell phone to begin with.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Howard Frankland Bridge: An Important Piece of the Tampa Bay Region Transportation Puzzle

By now you more than likely have heard about a potential replacement of the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, which carries Interstate 275 traffic between St. Petersburg and Tampa.  Of course the Howard Frankland Bridge - known informally over the years as the Frankenstein and the Car Strangled Banner in the Howard Frankland's single four lane span heydays - is an important piece of the Tampa Bay region's transportation puzzle and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Replacement of the northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge?  Let me give you a brief historical backgrounder, which you can also find on the Howard Frankland page at

A brief backgrounder of the Howard Frankland Bridge
As the Tampa Bay region's interstate highways began to take shape with the introduction of Interstate 4 into Tampa and terminating in St. Petersburg, a third crossing of Tampa Bay was a necessity.  In the late 1950's the needed real estate was available to develop the Tampa Bay region's interstate highways piece by piece.
With that in mind, the Howard Frankland Bridge was constructed as a slender four lane span with a low raised concrete divider as the center divider.  The Howard Frankland Bridge opened to traffic in 1960 which essentially brought Interstate 4 to St. Petersburg, terminating at where Exit 31 (Ulmerton Road/FL 688 and Martin Luther King St N) is located today.  Within months of opening head on collisions were getting to be commonplace on the bridge, which led to a Jersey barrier wall being constructed in the center divider with the barrier wall being topped by a low rise fence in the 1970's.
The Howard Frankland's notorious distinction for so many accidents and traffic backups and mega-delays on either side of the bridge led the Florida DOT to construct a second parallel span - which is higher and more modern that does meet interstate highway standards - and the span was opened to traffic in 1991.  The original 1960 span would be refurbished and converted into a span carrying northbound Interstate 275 traffic.
Fast forward from 1960 and 1991 to today
The original 1960 Howard Frankland Bridge - despite improvements done in 1991 and 1992 to refurbish the span - is nearing the end of its service life.  Despite the eight lanes that the Howard Frankland Bridge is now, the Tampa Bay region's growth continues at an unprecedented rate (with the only exception being the recent economic downturn).
There are plans in the works, according to the Florida DOT, to replace the original 1960 span with a newer, more modern span that better meets interstate standards.  Presently on the Howard Frankland's northbound span is only one emergency breakdown lane and its width is a recipe for major northbound gridlock backed up as far as Exit 32 (4 St N/FL 687) in St. Petersburg if a major accident occurs on the bridge.
The replacement northbound span is supposed to follow the curvature and height of the 1991 southbound span and it is supposed to look similar.  However, the Florida DOT has the chance to seize the opportunity:  A transit corridor that carries light rail or even commuter rail between St. Petersburg and Tampa.
How can a new Howard Frankland span play a role in the quest for rail based mass transit in the Tampa Bay region
The Howard Frankland Bridge is an important piece of the Tampa Bay region's transportation puzzle.  And it will become a more important piece of the transportation puzzle if and when rail based mass transit is introduced to the Tampa Bay region.
You probably have this thought in your mind:  Our area doesn't need rail based mass transit; simply more buses will do.  You are wrong.  Rail based mass transit is a choice of intra-regional travel that we residents of the Tampa Bay region do not have, unlike the residents of Miami-Ft. Lauderdale who have Tri-Rail and Orlando who are just about to have SunRail.
Realize that valuable real estate is at a premium today despite the real estate crisis that drove down property values.  Even with the improvements going on at Interstate 275 in Tampa you can expand Interstate 275 so much that you can get away with a total of eight lanes, which equates to four lanes in each direction.  But eight lanes of Interstate 275 isn't enough.
You can solve the Tampa Bay region's transit issues by putting more buses on the roads, including the use of so-called "bus rapid transit" or dedicated bus lanes.  However, when buses exit the dedicated bus lanes buses are subject to the same traffic delays as other motorists are subjected to daily.  However, simply adding more buses - including the express buses from St. Petersburg (operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or PSTA) or Clearwater (operated by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, or HART) to downtown Tampa - isn't enough.
So enter rail based mass transit.  And I don't care if it's commuter rail, light rail or a combination of the two.
Miami/Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando are lucky.  But for Tampa/St. Petersburg as of today, the only options for rail transit are limited to excursion style rail trips as opposed to commuter style rail trips:  Either a day trip on Amtrak's Silver Star (Trains 91 and 92) to Winter Haven and back, or a trip on a historical six mile stretch of railroad from Parrish to Willow round trip in northern Manatee County at the Florida Railroad Museum.
Besides, rail based mass transit would be a major economic shot in the arm for the Tampa Bay region.  We would see more and more major companies consider the Tampa Bay region more seriously in their relocation to Florida plans as commuters would have access to more choices.  We would see more and more people taking in professional sporting events such as at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg (home of the Tampa Bay Rays) or at Raymond James Stadium (home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) or the Tampa Bay Times Forum - formerly the St. Pete Times Forum (and the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning) - in Tampa, without the hassle and inconvenience of parking and the long trip back home after the game.
Imagine for a moment.  You live in, let's say New Tampa.  You want to take in a baseball game across the bay in St. Petersburg at Tropicana Field.  The Tampa Bay Rays decided after all these years of "let's move" that staying put at Tropicana Field is a much better option than anything else.  Simply hop in your car for a very short ride to the park and ride somewhere in New Tampa, where you pick up a light rail train that follows Bruce B. Downs Blvd. into downtown Tampa.  There you switch to a commuter rail train and enjoy a leisurely ride across Tampa Bay using a dedicated rail transit envelope corridor on the Howard Frankland Bridge to St. Petersburg and the Gateway Transit Station located in the Carillon office complex.  Then you switch to a light rail train that takes you straight to Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg, get off and make your way to your seat in the 300 Upper Deck Level.  Enjoy the pre-game festivities including the National Anthem and the game itself.
Furthermore, rail based mass transit can save residents in the Tampa Bay region money in the long run.  How can that be?
We depend on our cars for easy, yet dependable transportation to get us from Point A to Point B and vice versa.  But the downside of car ownership, besides the high gas prices, is car insurance which gets higher and higher at every renewal.  You might not realize this, but a major factor that drives your car insurance rates is how many miles do you drive one way to your work place daily.  The longer your commute to work is, the more you pay in auto insurance.
Let's do the homework.  Assume that you live in New Tampa and that you work in downtown Tampa.  As the distance is a little considerable between New Tampa and downtown Tampa as opposed to living in downtown Tampa and walking to work (which is good for your health, but the costs of living in downtown Tampa are quite prohibitive), you would pay a good chunk of money every year in auto insurance premiums.  In order to help reduce your auto insurance premiums, you decide to commute to work in downtown Tampa on the light rail route that takes you down Bruce B. Downs.
OK.  Here's another New Tampa resident scenario, but this time you commute to your workplace at the First Central Tower in downtown St. Petersburg.  Right now, if you commuted there by your own car five days a week, not only you would be paying for gasoline as well as wear and tear on your car, you would be paying a lot more in auto insurance due to the heavy commute.  In order for you to save money on your auto insurance (and save some extra cash for that vacation you and your family want to take for a long time), you decide to commute to work in downtown St. Petersburg using a system of light and commuter rail:
1.  From New Tampa, a light rail line via Bruce B. Downs Blvd. to downtown Tampa.
2.  At downtown Tampa, transfer seamlessly over to the commuter rail line which takes you to St. Petersburg by way of the newly created transit corridor on the Howard Frankland Bridge.  While you are seated (and concentrating on reading the morning newspaper), watch as you pass by backed up traffic on Interstate 275 during the morning commute.
3.  Once in St. Petersburg, arrive at the Gateway Transit Station in the Carillon office complex.  Transfer seamlessly to light rail for your trip to downtown St. Petersburg and to work at the First Central Tower at 360 Central Avenue.
And another thing I forgot to mention on the subject of why it costs to commute to work, especially if you work in downtown St. Petersburg or downtown Tampa:  You have to pay for parking in a parking garage.  Parking garage rents can quite considerably impact your personal bottom line, especially if you are working in a clerical position.
So, here's a run down of what your expenses would be commuting to work in one of the downtowns, personal automobile vs. rail transit:
Personal Automobile:
1.  Wear and tear on your automobile, not to mention the miles you put on your odometer daily.
2.  Increased costs of car insurance.  Remember, the further your commute to work the more you pay for car insurance.
3.  Having to spend a good portion of your personal weekly budget on gasoline for your car.  After all, the cost of gasoline keeps climbing - you will wish there is a rail based alternative if and when gas hits $4.00 a gallon in the Tampa Bay region again.
4.  Monthly parking garage expenses, especially if your employer does not subsidize your parking.  Imagine working a clerical job in downtown St. Petersburg and you are paying $70 a month for parking.
Rail Transit:
1.  The cost of a monthly pass.
As you can see, the practical cost of commuting to work using rail based mass transit would just be the cost of a monthly transit pass.  In fact, more and more employers offer monthly passes to their employees at a discounted rate in order to entice them to give up driving to work in exchange for a leisurely, yet relaxing commute to work using rail based mass transit.
A rail based transit corridor on the Howard Frankland Bridge, as part of the planned reconstruction of the Howard Frankland's northbound span, would be an important, yet necessary, part of the Tampa Bay region's transportation puzzle.  It would change the face of the Tampa Bay region on an economic scale.
More uses of a rail based transit corridor for the Howard Frankland Bridge
Having rail based mass transit on a newly constructed rail corridor of the Howard Frankland Bridge would not only give the Tampa Bay region an economic shot in the arm, there are also plenty of other uses besides commuting to and from work.
Access to Tampa International Airport
Let's say you want to take a vacation or you needed to go out of town on business.  You live in St. Petersburg.
Right now you have two options:  Drive yourself to the airport and pay $9 per day for parking in Tampa International Airport's economy parking garage.  Or pay for taxi or shuttle fare and have them take you to the airport.
With rail based mass transit, that would give you yet another option to get to Tampa International Airport.  As you live in St. Petersburg, simply drive to the nearest light rail park and ride and catch the light rail over to the Gateway Transit Station in Carillon.  There seamlessly transfer to commuter rail for a relaxing trip across Tampa Bay instead of being stuck in gridlocked Interstate 275 traffic.  Arrive at Tampa International Airport and catch your flight.
And the cost?  A one way ticket from where you got on the light rail in St. Petersburg with transfers included.  And believe me, it would be a lot less than you paying for airport parking.  And you saved yourself the stress of getting to the airport on time to catch your flight.
Now let's say you arrived in town and you are here on business.  Or you are here to take in our gorgeous beaches and take it easy.  Instead of the hassle of renting a car or taking a taxi or shuttle, simply hop on board rail transit to get you where you want to go.
And if you are staying at one of the many resorts out there on the beaches of the Pinellas Suncoast, you can decide to rent a car later if you would like to explore more.
We can't forget Amtrak here.
The last time an Amtrak train served St. Petersburg was in February 1984.  Today Amtrak's Silver Star serves Tampa's Union Station twice daily, Train 91 southbound to Miami and Train 92 northbound to New York City.  For those of you in St. Petersburg that want to take a ride on Amtrak, you can either have someone drive you to Tampa or take the bus that runs from the Amtrak ticket office located in a shopping plaza on 110 Av N and US 19 in Pinellas Park.

Now how can we attract Amtrak as another transportation choice in St. Petersburg?  The dedicated rail corridor on the Howard Frankland Bridge would help.  Amtrak service to St. Petersburg can be viable using both a Howard Frankland crossing and the existing CSX Clearwater Subdivision tracks, upgraded to passenger standards.

With that in mind, here are a few Amtrak related ideas as far as a new Howard Frankland rail corridor is concerned:

1.  Connect the existing CSX A Line tracks from Tampa Union Station over to a widened Interstate 275 median.  The widened median is taking shape as a result of the construction underway on Interstate 275 in Tampa from Westshore Blvd. to downtown Tampa, scheduled to be wrapped up in 2016.

2.  Connect and upgrade the track that runs north of the Neve Wye into the Clearwater Subdivision.  That way, Amtrak can run service into St. Petersburg like a serpentine circle and at the same time get rid of that reverse move into Tampa Union Station.

Presently all Amtrak trains serving Tampa Union Station have to be turned at the Neve Wye, a rail spur and turnaround point located east of Ybor City, and backed into the station.  While Tampa is a station stop on the Silver Star, Tampa's Union Station is what is classified as a stub in facility as opposed to a run through facility as is the case of most railroad stations in the United States.

3.  Increase Amtrak's frequency of Florida service by having the Silver Star's partner, the Silver Meteor, serve Tampa instead of bypassing it as it is now.

4.  Both southbound trains can enter the Neve Wye, follow the track to a crossover track to the CSX Clearwater Subdivision, then proceed on that track to a new station stop in St. Petersburg.  Then proceed on the new Howard Frankland rail corridor to Tampa and Tampa Union Station.  After Tampa, proceed southbound to Lakeland, Winter Haven, Sebring and all intermediate points to Miami.

5.  Both northbound trains can stop in Tampa first.  After Tampa follow the new Howard Frankland rail corridor to St. Petersburg and a new station stop.  Then follow the CSX Clearwater Subdivision and over the new crossover track to the Neve Wye and eastbound on the CSX A Line to Kissimmee, Orlando, Jacksonville and points north to New York City.

6.  What about the resurrection of Amtrak's Sunset Limited as a true cross country transcontinental route?  As you know, the eastern terminus of the Sunset Limited is in New Orleans since 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit.  Let's extend the Sunset Limited back to Florida and make Miami the terminus.  Here's how it can be done:

East on the CSX line from New Orleans and across Mississippi and Alabama and into Florida at Pensacola.  Continue east to Jacksonville.

At Jacksonville route the Sunset Limited onto the CSX S Line and follow it south via Ocala and Wildwood.  At Dade City use the Vitis Subdivision track (the track that connects Dade City with Lakeland) and turn west onto the CSX A Line towards Tampa.

The Eastbound Sunset Limited can follow the route to St. Petersburg first, then Tampa, and on to Miami.  Likewise, the westbound Sunset Limited can reverse the direction, stopping in Tampa first, then St. Petersburg, then following the Clearwater Subdivision to the S Line north to Jacksonville.

I just wanted to throw in a discussion of Amtrak service and how some ideas for expanded Amtrak service in Florida can become reality thanks to a new Howard Frankland rail corridor.  Granted, Amtrak has good service into Florida with two trains daily but there's plenty of room for improvement as far as service is concerned.

The Howard Frankland Bridge's future as a road and rail corridor

Now that the Florida DOT is considering the replacement of the original 1960 Howard Frankland span, the opportunity for improvements including turning the Howard Frankland into a multi purpose road and rail corridor is here.  And it can be done.

I spoke at one of the Florida DOT public hearings on the replacement of the Howard Frankland Bridge not too long ago.  With the exception of a couple of people who spoke at the public hearing, most including me are in agreement that rail based mass transit is the Tampa Bay region's answer to a good shot in the Tampa/St. Petersburg economic arm.

Rail based mass transit will make the Tampa Bay region competitive with other Florida metropolitan areas.  Rail based mass transit will attract more and more companies to consider moving their headquarters or major operations to our area over Orlando or Miami.

Sure we got Interstate 275.  You can widen it all you want, but that alone won't help the Tampa Bay region's mass transit woes.

Sure we have buses.  But buses are subject to the same traffic delays as everyone else, even with so-called "bus rapid transit" when buses exit the dedicated bus lanes to get to their intended destinations.

The framework is here.  That framework is a regional transit authority called the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, or TBARTA for short.  What TBARTA could do is a merger of both PSTA and HART to create a seamless transit service throughout the region.

Imagine one day you live in New Tampa and you want to go to a Tampa Bay Rays game at Tropicana Field.  Instead of hopping in your car and driving Interstate 275 to St. Petersburg and paying for parking at Tropicana Field, you can hop on a mixture of light and commuter rail right to the game.

Imagine one day you live in the Gandy area of St. Petersburg and you work in downtown St. Petersburg.  Instead of paying outrageously high parking garage fees downtown, you can hop on the light rail and arrive downtown, refreshed and ready to face the work day.

Imagine one day ... when and if light and commuter rail transit is implemented in the Tampa Bay region, the way we move about in the Tampa Bay region will change.

Now that our economy is rebounding, we here in the Tampa Bay region need to seize the opportunity.  And that opportunity is rail based mass transit.