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Proposed Central Avenue BRT moves into high gear with hearings in St. Pete, St. Pete Beach

Megan Holmes

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It’s a big week for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in south Pinellas County. Tonight, PSTA will present the latest iteration of the Central Avenue BRT project to the St. Pete Beach City Commission and public. Last month, a packed St. Pete Beach City Commission workshop focused primarily on public comment left many with misconceptions and unanswered questions regarding the long-debated project.

The proposed Central Avenue BRT project would connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach with faster service and fewer stops than the current Central Avenue Trolley service. 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.

Proposed BRT route.

Over raucous complaints from activists opposed to the project, the St. Pete Beach City Commission tabled the discussion of whether to sign an interlocal agreement with PSTA or to pass a resolution opposing the Central Avenue BRT project.

Because Gulf Boulevard is a Florida state road, St. Pete Beach’s jurisdiction over the BRT project is limited. The Florida Department of Transportation, a co-applicant with PSTA for federal grant funding of the project may have the final say. But, opponents of the project say that a resolution against the BRT project could slow or hurt it. Discussions will resume July 8.

PSTA shared a draft of tonight’s presentation with the public through the St. Pete Beach City Commission website. The presentation provides the latest ridership numbers for the Central Avenue Trolley and projected growth with BRT, and allays ongoing concerns left over from previous iterations of the project. Public comment during the last City Commission workshop was centered around such misconceptions, including increasing traffic on St. Pete Beach and especially Pass-a-Grille, concerns over bus size, lack of ridership and changes to traffic lanes on St. Pete Beach. 

“I’ve been hearing a lot lately that there’s going to be a reduction of lanes on Gulf Boulevard,” said Steven Herzfeld, the lone proponent of the Central Avenue BRT project to speak at last month’s City Commission meeting. “Raise your hand if you’ve heard that,” he said to the crowd. 

“You’ve been lied to,” said Herzfeld, to a room full of raised hands.

PSTA documents show that there will be no lane elimination in any portion of the BRT route. However, there will be some changes to lane access on 1st Avenue North and 1st Avenue South and Pasadena, with buses traveling in one dedicated BAT lane that allows access for turning cars. The buses would run in normal traffic lanes on St. Pete Beach and there would be no changes to the current lane designations on Gulf Boulevard. 

Residents and activists also expressed concerns over the length of the buses employed in the project and the number of buses running through St. Pete Beach at any given time. According to PSTA documents, 60-foot buses were initially proposed for the project, but as a result of public concern, these buses were eliminated in favor of shorter buses not to exceed 40 feet. Similarly, with buses running every 15 minutes, PSTA projects that only one PSTA bus would be on St. Pete Beach at any given time. 

Finally, the cost of the project has been a long-contested issue between PSTA and St. Pete Beach. While PSTA’s initial federal funding application for the Central Avenue BRT project included $1.5 million from St. Pete Beach, those funds have now been reduced to zero. The project costs will be split between the Federal Transit Authority (FTA), Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and local funds split between the City of St. Petersburg and PSTA itself. PSTA also contends that the project would save St. Pete Beach $100,000 per year by eliminating the Pass-a-Grille trolley, which is partially funded by the City. 

The interlocal agreement between PSTA and the City of St. Petersburg will also be heard this week at the St. Petersburg City Council meeting held Thursday afternoon. The Kriseman administration is recommending City Council’s approval of a resolution to fund the Central Avenue BRT project by transferring $1,592,197 of unappropriated funds from the Downtown Redevelopment District Fund, and $2 million from Intown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funds into the city’s TIF Capital Projects Fund, and eventually into a Central Avenue BRT project fund.

These specific funding requests are coming to City Council following a 2017 resolution in which City Council requested that the Kriseman administration identify funding sources to match federal and state grant funds. If the resolution passes, the total investment in the BRT project for FY 2019 would be $3,592,197. 

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