—– Updated: May 28, 2020 9:25pm ——
Transit advocates across the county are celebrating a big win as President Donald Trump took to Twitter Thursday night to announce that the United States Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Authority (FTA) committed $21.8 million for the Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project.
The Central Avenue BRT project will connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach with faster service and fewer stops than the current Central Avenue Trolley service, utilizing one-way streets First Avenue North and First Avenue South.
The 24-mile round trip route would have just 24 stops and run buses every 15 minutes largely in a dedicated business access and transit lane (also known as BAT). These lanes would serve primarily as dedicated bus lanes, but allow cars’ use as turn lanes into businesses or neighborhoods.
The project will be the first of its kind in Tampa Bay, as announced by Trump via Twitter. The announcement came alongside a batch of tweets for other USDOT-funded projects.
.@USDOT is committing $21.8M for the FIRST transit project of this kind in the Tampa Bay region. It will connect St. Petersburg to popular beaches through state-of-the-art transit buses with FREE WiFi. Will be a major help to heavily populated parts of the Great State of Florida!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 28, 2020
The St. Petersburg City Council voted unanimously in June 2019 to allocate $4 million to the BRT project, which has received strong support from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“This funding has been long-awaited and is much needed,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman in a statement. “The Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project is the first transit project of its kind in the region and our hope is that it not only makes going back and forth between our vibrant downtown and the beaches easier, but helps to move the larger conversation around regional transportation forward.”
The project has also won praise from the St. Petersburg business community, primarily driven by the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.
“This catalyst project will help transform our transportation network in the St. Pete/Clearwater/Tampa area,” said Chamber President and CEO Chris Steinocher in a statement. “From meetings at the White House to joining PSTA and local transportation advocates on Capitol Hill, the Chamber Advocacy Team has been fighting for this funding for over 2 years and we could not be more excited for today’s announcement!”
In March 2017, the St. Petersburg Chamber sent representatives to Washington D.C. to advocate alongside PSTA representatives, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and St. Petersburg City Council members Darden Rice and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman. The group met with the FTA and the Florida congressional delegation.
Funding for the $43 million project is split between the $21.8 million in federal dollars, Florida Department of Transportation’s $10.5 million and the city of St. Petersburg and PSTA’s $11.6 million. It will come at no cost to the City of St. Pete Beach, which has formally objected to the project.
Despite these objections, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is moving forward with the proposed route, utilizing state roads under Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) jurisdiction. FDOT was a co-applicant alongside PSTA for the federal funding dollars from the FTA.
Construction of the project’s BRT platforms is already underway, as H.W. Lochner Inc. submitted construction plans to Southwest Florida Water Management System in November 2019. The construction of the BRT stations is particularly important to the project, as the stations will include measures unique to BRT like raised platforms for boarding, known as level boarding, which would allow BRT users to roll wheelchairs or bikes directly onto the bus, removing the need for ramps or other accessibility measures. Level boarding is a BRT best practice, along with bus travel in dedicated lanes, traffic signal alignment and pre-payment before boarding.
“If true, this would be consistent with what officials at FTA have been telling us for months,” said PSTA CEO Brad Miller. “The federal dollars will be made available for the Central Ave BRT project and they too see the benefits in establishing this service.”