The City of St. Pete Beach’s City Commission workshop was filled to capacity Tuesday, as local opposition to Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) project continues to grow. A crowd of St. Pete Beach residents and anti-transit activists gathered to fill both the commission chambers and overflow space, urging the St. Pete Beach City Commission to sign a resolution opposing the BRT project and reject an interlocal agreement with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA).
The BRT project, which would connect downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach with faster service and fewer stops, is largely supported by the business community on both sides. The proposal has been endorsed by the City of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, Central Avenue Business District, Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber and the Tampa Bay Rays. According to PSTA, it would be the first step in a larger project to connect the region and eventually bring visitors from Tampa International Airport to the region’s popular beach destinations.
The project would provide rapid bus service in dedicated business access and transit (BAT) lanes, on 1st Ave N & 1st Ave S, down Pasadena Avenue, and onto St. Pete Beach via 75th Avenue to Gulf Boulevard, toward the Don CeSar. The proposed BRT route would be 24 miles round trip, with just 24 stops and buses running every 15 minutes. It is projected to grow the route’s current ridership by more than 3,300 rides per day, and add 1,500 new riders.
PSTA and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) jointly applied for federal grant funding for the project, which is likely to move ahead regardless of the City of St. Pete Beach’s decision, due to the state’s jurisdiction over Gulf Boulevard.
“Does passing a resolution stop BRT from coming here?” asked St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson. “Or are we better off having a modified BRT that we can live with?”
“Gulf Boulevard is a state road, FDOT is a partner in the FTA application with PSTA, so can you stop it? I don’t know,” responded City Attorney Andrew Dickman. “I don’t think you can completely stop it if you vote on a resolution, but I think you can hurt it.”
Commissioner Melinda Pletcher of District 4 expressed concerns over signing a resolution against the BRT project, fearing that it may reduce the city’s bargaining power, should the project move forward anyway. If the city were to sign the interlocal agreement, they could have more power to negotiate stop locations and bus turnarounds within the city limits.
The more than $40 million project would come at no cost to the City of St. Pete Beach. Nearly 50 percent of the funding ($20 million) would come from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, 25 percent ($10.5 million) from FDOT, and the rest ($10.5 million) from local dollars, split between the City of St. Petersburg and PSTA. According to PSTA, the City of St. Pete Beach would actually save $100,000 each year by eliminating its current bus service agreement, and (despite misconceptions) there would be no change to current lane configurations on 75th Ave or Gulf Boulevard.
After more than 90 minutes of open forum, citing concerns over increased traffic, overcrowding and low ridership, the City Commission tabled the topic and scheduled a follow-up community meeting for June 11 to further consider PSTA’s case for BRT. The commission also committed to make a decision on whether to sign the resolution in opposition or the interlocal agreement with PTSA during its meeting July 9.