Improving bus service currently offers commuters the best route to more efficient regional mass transit.

When it comes to moving really significant numbers of people through the Tampa Bay area without automobiles, it’s hard to beat the allure of light-rail trains connecting our major cities and employment centers. But such projects come at a steep price, and we clearly don’t yet have enough public or legislative support in our region for that solution. The smarter strategy at the moment is to look beyond train tracks to a more politically acceptable solution.

Jacobs Engineering recently unveiled the basic results of a $1.5 million study to address these needs and presented a more cost-effective and politically acceptable solution. The study could lead to a viable mass transit plan linking Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough Counties.

We know our region has a lot to offer. But there’s one big drawback….our lack of adequate mass transit resources. Commuters in our area can spend up to three hours or more each day in their cars commuting to and from work. There are more than 3.5 million people in the Tampa Bay area, and we are growing every day. Our expressway and surface road systems are not able to handle the traffic volumes they are forced to accept, resulting in the increasing and frustrating congestion that we are experiencing every day. The truth is, our “urban sprawl” land use pattern is a core problem, and too many of our far-flung residents, despite those torturous commutes, see no benefit to light rail; so at this point in time, a light rail solution will not happen. The requirement for a sales tax referendum to pay our local fair share for light rail is anathema to our conservative, no tax-elected officials, and the conservative voters who elected them.

We need to look at other options, and this new study could be the core basis of a viable solution. The Regional Premium Transit Feasibility Study envisions the creation of a modern, main-line bus system that looks very similar to a light rail system, but runs on rubber tires instead of metal train tracks. It would create a spine, like light rail, with a 40-mile route connecting Wesley Chapel to the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa, the Westshore area, Gateway Pinellas and downtown St. Petersburg, along the Interstate 275 corridor. A key to this concept, like light rail, would be significantly beefed up surface bus systems in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, to continue riders to their destinations efficiently.

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) concept will cost much less to build and operate, and create less disruption to construct. The FDOT estimates the construction costs to be around $450 million, compared to $2.5 billion to $4 billion for rail. Coincidentally or not, this plan also dovetails nicely with FDOT’s current plans to add express lanes along most of the planned route.

The study made some interesting points about utilizing the interstate shoulders, where express lanes are not currently planned, to create the express bus lanes. The buses, along with automobile drivers paying to use the proposed express lanes, would have a dedicated through lane, as opposed being stuck in the general traffic lanes. The end-to-end trip along on this route would be about 90 minutes to travel the full 41 miles, including the stops along the way. The BRT would travel in these dedicated lanes and link with surface buses and other transit modes, at platform stations. This is good news for downtown Tampa, where it could connect with a newly extended TECO Line Streetcar System, for efficient downtown circulation without using a car. The BRT stop in downtown St. Pete would be equally advantageous, and surely include new ground transit connections.

We may finally have a politically and financially acceptable solution to improve regional mass transit in our area. It’s a practical call on many levels. Currently, many companies considering a move to Tampa Bay are discouraged from locating here because of the terrible traffic congestion and commute times, and lousy transit for their employees. For urbanist millennials, environmentally-aware citizens and retiring boomers, who often don’t want to constantly use (or even own) cars, it would become an attractive alternative. In order for our region to continue to thrive healthily, some significant regional transit improvements are long overdue, and this study shows the potential for a politically acceptable and very important step forward.

The Road to a New Team

I’ve been a sports car race spotter for eight years. I started with The Racers Group (TRG) in 2011. For a couple of years, I only worked the Rolex 24 and then added the 12 Hours of Sebring—I was the very first spotter at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Last year, I joined Alegra Motorsports at the request of the owner. We won the Rolex 24 with 17-year-old Michael de Quesada, 19-year-old Jesse Lazare, 26-year-old Daniel Morad, 26-year-old Michael Christensen (Porsche factory driver) and 48-year-old Carlos de Quesada (Dad-his second win). After a slugfest 12 Hours of Sebring, Porsche Motorsport persuaded the team to continue the entire 11 race Weathertech series and I was asked to join the team for the series-YES!

All racetracks are NOT conducive to having spotters and the races that ONLY have same class cars don’t need spotters. Therefore, I worked the following races: Rolex 24, 12 Hours of Sebring, Grand Prix at Long Beach, Circuit of the Americas (Austin), Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta. I had a blast! We ended the season with a second place finish at the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, and were on track to start the season in January with the Rolex 24. In mid-December, Porsche offered the team an incentive to “switch” series and join the Pirelli World Challenge, which meant they would NOT be at the Rolex—bummer.

The Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the largest sports car race in the world, outside of Le Mans, and attracts world-class racing drivers from Formula 1, IndyCar, NASCAR and more. Since it was built for NASCAR, it allows full track viewing by a spotter. When sports cars are racing at Daytona, they run the NASCAR tri-oval and add an infield section. No spotter wants to miss working the Rolex.

When I received notice that I wouldn’t be working the Rolex for Alegra in mid-December, I immediately let teams and drivers know I was available. Since we were so close to the Roar (the mandatory early January practice), most teams had their crews all set, and with the holidays upon us, communication was at a crawl.

In late December, I decided that I would go “free agent” and show up at the Roar and try to find a “new” team. I showed up at Daytona on January 4 and started walking the paddock and garages, talking to drivers, crew chiefs, and owners. Just maybe at age 66 I would be considered too old for the job and wouldn’t get hired—there was a panicked moment. However, within 30 minutes I had a couple of offers. GREAT! I joined Park Place and will be at the Rolex followed by the 12 Hours of Sebring. I don’t know yet if I will work the entire season with Park Place—we’ll see.