The week of Thanksgiving is the busiest travel time of the year. The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that 46.9 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles from home this Thanksgiving weekend, driving to each other’s homes, or to the airport, to visit friends and family for the holiday.
Living in St. Petersburg, I will be leaving my car parked all weekend, taking advantage of the great pedestrian and bicycle accommodations in my part of the city to visit with loved ones in the area, and to just enjoy being outside with my kids. While getting around without a car is not a viable option for many people throughout Pinellas County and the broader region today, changes are coming!
The Pinellas County Long Range Transportation Plan identifies 146 miles of planned multiuse trails – that is in addition to the 100 miles of multiuse trails already on the ground countywide. The Plan also identifies an additional 346 miles of new bicycle lanes beyond the 170 miles in existence today. With the construction of all of those facilities (which will admittedly take a number of years to complete), biking and walking will become a more viable option for many Pinellas County residents and visitors, allowing people to keep their cars parked and enjoy the great weather during this time of the year while burning a few calories from the big meal.
For longer distance travel that many people choose to undertake to celebrate holidays with relatives, there are plenty of other plans in the works as well! Tampa International Airport (TIA) is popular as the starting point for long distance trips from Pinellas County. It is not currently possible to get to TIA directly from Pinellas without driving yourself, or taking a taxi, shuttle, or some form of ride-sharing service. The Pinellas County MPO and its partners have been hard at work to identify alternatives to getting to TIA and further around the region without having to drive a vehicle.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has identified funding to replace the northbound span of the I-275 Howard Frankland Bridge, with construction starting in 2019. While this project will not increase the capacity of the bridge right away (the same number of lanes will be on the new structure as are on the existing one), the bridge will be strengthened to accommodate future premium transit accommodations across the bridge (including some type of passenger rail service) that connects Pinellas to TIA.
Just across the Howard Frankland Bridge in Hillsborough County, plans are underway to build a multimodal center in the Westshore area. The FDOT just submitted a proposal for the purchase of property in the area on which to construct the Westshore Multimodal Center, which will provide a central location where transit services from Pinellas County, TIA, the Veterans Expressway, and from downtown Tampa could all converge, allowing for easy connections to points throughout the region.
At TIA, a new long term parking garage and rental car facility is currently under construction on the southern portion of the property, connecting to the main terminal with an automated people mover. Once this project is complete, further plans will be developed to connect from the airport to the Westshore Multimodal Center with some form of premium transit technology.
Focusing on regional connections outside of the Howard Frankland Bridge corridor, there is a lot of discussion surrounding the potential to share use of two CSX rail lines for passenger transit service along with freight. The two rail lines being discussed extend from Brooksville in Hernando County through Pasco County into downtown Tampa and from St. Petersburg through downtown Clearwater and east through Oldsmar into Hillsborough County, potentially connecting into downtown Tampa. This alignment also runs just north of TIA, connecting a major regional attraction.
All of those connections will prove vital in creating a network of seamless transportation options for travel throughout the region. Creating a safe and convenient network of multiuse paths and bicycle lanes allows people the choice to leave their cars parked to carry out some of their day-to-day activities. This provides opportunities for people to improve their health and enjoy their communities from a perspective that is more up-close and, I would argue, more pleasant than from behind the wheel of a car. By expanding transit options to airport, it will be possible to get to TIA without having to worry if the traffic coming into the airport from the Howard Frankland Bridge will be backed up so far that you might miss your flight. If we can make our trips to visit friends and family less stressful and more efficient, we can arrive on time, relaxed and ready to enjoy the holidays together. Transportation options benefit us all and make for a more vibrant Tampa Bay region.