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St. Pete Beach Commission appears unwilling to budge on BRT

Megan Holmes

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The ongoing controversy over the proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project stirred Tuesday as the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) presented the latest iteration of the project to the St. Pete Beach City Commission.

PSTA’s case for the project appeared to fall on deaf ears, as the St. Pete Beach City Commission remained hostile to the project. Despite its previous agreement to vote on a potential resolution against the BRT project on July 8, a vote is now scheduled for Thursday morning. 

The Central Avenue BRT project would connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach with faster service and fewer stops, cutting the current Central Avenue Trolley’s 55-minute one-way service to just 35 minutes. The time saved would come not just from fewer stops, but other measures unique to BRT like bus travel in dedicated lanes, traffic signal alignment and pre-payment before boarding. The project would also utilize boarding from platforms, 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 accessible measures.

According to census data compiled by Forward Pinellas, 80 percent of workers employed on St. Pete Beach live outside of St. Pete Beach city limits. Forty percent of those workers live in St. Petersburg. Therefore, according to PSTA, the need for robust public transit options is great – not just for visitors, but for residents looking for better options to get to work. 

Highlighted in the presentation were concessions made by PSTA to ease St. Pete Beach residents’ concerns over the proposed project. Instead of the previously proposed 60-foot buses (which are the default for BRT projects across the nation), PSTA has agreed to 40-foot buses. Instead of terminating the route as previously proposed at the Don CeSar, PSTA has agreed to terminate service at the county’s public beach access, just north of 46th avenue. PSTA has made these concessions despite the fact that Gulf Boulevard is a Florida State Road, which means it is under state jurisdiction, not that of St. Pete Beach. 

Still, St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson and City Commissioners Ward Friszolowski and Melinda Pletcher were unsatisfied. “It’s not our culture,” said Pletcher. “I’d love to see a public transportation model that works with the demographic we’re dealing with … I think that right sizing it is our responsibility.”

“One of our residents put it best at the last workshop,” Johnson said. “These are city buses but we’re not a city, we’re a beach town. They’re out of place here – the buses are.” 

Friszolowski asked repeatedly whether terminating service at the entrance to St. Pete Beach (75th Avenue) was an option. He also proposed St. Pete Beach create their own service to bring riders from 75th Avenue to other stops throughout St. Pete Beach. No specifics on the cost or mode of transportation were discussed.

PSTA project manager Abhishek Dayal argued firmly against such a change, citing ridership statistics from the two additional proposed stops on St. Pete Beach, which include major businesses like Tradewinds Resort. PSTA’s ridership estimates suggest that BRT would add an additional 3,300 riders per day to the current ridership of the Central Avenue Trolley, bringing total ridership to 5,800 per day. The data estimates that more than 250 riders would frequent the “County Park” stop each day. 

Pletcher took issue with the numbers provided by PSTA, which gave average daily ridership from February to June 2017, arguing that the numbers were outdated and didn’t provide enough detail. The ridership study was completed in 2017 expressly for the standards of a Federal Transit Authority (FTA) grant that would fund 50 percent of the project. According to project consultant Scott Pringle of WSP, “If we were to rerun the ridership forecast today, the numbers would be even higher, because we’ve had growth since that time.” 

Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s regional land use and transportation planning agency, also provided background for the PSTA project. The Central Avenue corridor is the first leg in what could become a large regional system connecting riders from Tampa International Airport to St. Pete Beach.

“This is the number one priority project in the county. It is one of the top five projects in the region, and it’s the first leg,” said Blanton. “It’s a bigger picture than a small beach community,” he said, above angry boos from the crowd.

“It’s a corridor that connects major roadways. Central Avenue is continuing to grow and you all are an important part of that and you’re part of that decision, but this is a bigger picture than one community – it’s important to our whole county.”

“We’re on the tail end of that whole route,” said St. Pete Beach Mayor Alan Johnson. “We live here. And we want to continue to be the destination we are.”

“I don’t mean to minimize that role that you have,” responded Blanton. “But there is a bigger picture that is a countywide and regional perspective.”

“I think we all agree with that and recognize it, that’s the reason we’re talking to you and we haven’t just told you to take a hike,” said Johnson.

“If we scale the project back and introduce more transfers for the riders, you’re not going to have good service,” said Blanton of the proposal to terminate the BRT service at 75th Avenue. “Ridership plummets when you ask people to transfer more than once. If you’re already getting people who are feeding into this corridor from another route … and then you bring them in here and ask them to transfer another time, it’s going to kill that travel time saved.”

A previously tabled resolution opposing the BRT project is scheduled for a vote on Thursday morning. BRT funding will also come up for a vote during the St. Petersburg City Council meeting Thursday. 

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