May 28--TAMPA -- HART, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency, is looking for federal transportation money to help revamp its Marion Street transit corridor through downtown Tampa.
The agency applied last month for a $10 million grant through the federal Department of Transportation's TIGER program, the same program that provided money for the Kennedy Plaza segment of the Tampa Riverwalk now going up in the Hillsborough River.
The Marion Street transit way runs the length of its namesake street from HART's Marion Transit Center at Laurel Street south to Whiting Street. It opened in 1989 as a bus-only corridor designed to speed commuters in and out of downtown.
But 25 years later, the corridor no longer works like it should, said Jeff Seward, HART's chief financial officer.
"There are some days you could actually out-walk a bus using the transit way," Seward said recently. "It's not functioning the way it was intended."
Things are so bad HART routed its new MetroRapid commuter line around Marion Street instead of along it. Other routes have been removed from Marion Street as well.
Marion Street was built before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated curb cuts and other accommodations for people in wheelchairs. During morning and evening rush hours, the narrow corridor leaves no room for moving buses to pass those picking up passengers, so traffic backs up.
Earlier this year, HART and the Tampa Downtown Partnership reviewed the options for the transit corridor's future. One possibility was removing its status as a bus-only corridor during working hours, said Karen Kress, the partnership's transportation director.
"We decided it would be shortsighted," Kress said.
It also would have been expensive, because HART would have had to repay the federal government part of the original construction costs of the corridor, Seward said.
Then there's the prospect of making Marion Street a future route for HART's TECO Historic Streetcar, which now ends its route from Ybor City at Whiting and Franklin streets.
Marion Street is one block over from the streetcar's current downtown terminus and wouldn't require HART to buy any right of way, Seward said.
"There's a whole camp that would like it to become a streetcar extension," Kress said.
The route could also link a future bike route along Cass Street with another bike lane proposed for the footprint of the Selmon Expressway. Cyclists already use the transit route because it has little traffic, Kress said.
But all those plans are down the road. In the short term, HART hopes to use a federal grant to bring the corridor into line with the ADA and add landscaping and streetlights. Bus shelters will also be relocated and redesigned to help riders feel safe along a corridor that has few storefronts or other street-level business.
Also on the to-do list for Marion Street is reworking the timing of traffic signals to give the bus lane priority over regular traffic -- a change that will take agreement from the city and from the state Department of Transportation, which controls traffic on Kennedy Boulevard.
"At the end of the day, if we can't correct the light-timing issue, we can make this as pretty as we want but it won't be viable," Seward said.
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