Downtown St. Petersburg will be connected to Pinellas County beaches via First Avenues North and South with a Bus Rapid Transit line using a $500,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, according to the state agency.
During a sunny news conference in front of one of Central Avenue’s many wall murals, FDOT Secretary Paul Steinman called the Central Avenue BRT route “premium transit” necessary to create a “fully integrated transportation system.”
The new route piggybacks on the existing Central Avenue Beach Trolley that goes from downtown St. Pete to Pass-a-grille via Central Avenue.
A funding proposal was denied last year at the state level because the two routes seemed redundant. However, the new route offers service to people looking to traverse the entire route.
According to PSTA CEO Brad Miller, the existing beach trolley takes about 90-minutes to ride the entire route. He said it’s one of the agency’s more popular routes, but people traveling only short distances along the line typically use it. The new route would better serve visitors looking to take a trip from their waterfront beach resort to downtown or for residents downtown to commute to work at the beach.
Miller said the goal is to create a route that would take 30-40 minutes to traverse in its entirety, less than half the current service level.
The quicker routes are made possible by traffic prioritization. First Avenues North and South are already timed so motorists don’t hit traffic lights so long as they’re going about the speed limit. The route would also have less frequent stops.
Not much build-out is necessary for the project. Miller likened it to Tampa’s Metro Rapid. That route runs along the popular transit corridors along Nebraska and Hillsborough Avenues. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency built some new bus stops with new signing, but not much else.
While funding efforts for the BRT line failed last year, the agency is still making it a top priority this legislative session asking again for $1 million to help with costs. But even without that funding, the project is moving forward.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes was on hand to support the project. Though he didn’t mention funding at the state level, he did tout the project as a key to economic development in one of the county’s major transit corridors.
Officials are making the case that funding is a wise use of state money through various other means as well. St. Petersburg City Council member and PSTA board member Darden Rice explained there are 25,000 jobs within a half-mile radius of the planned route and about 50,000 residents in the same area.
“It’s about helping people move around,” Rice said. “It’s about helping people get to jobs.”
There’s also tourism to consider. Visit St. Pete Clearwater Executive Director David Downing said the area welcomes 15 million visitors each year. That represents a huge revenue stream often fought over by various interests.
Of those yearly visitors, Downing said 25 percent are international travelers. There’s also a growing demographic of millennial visitors flooding the area.
“Both of those groups of people expect high quality, low cost transportation,” Downing said.
While the project is St. Pete-centric, the agency is looking at it as a way to boost transit perceptions countywide.
Just a little over a year ago PSTA sustained a debilitating loss when the Greenlight Pinellas transit initiative that would have provided an influx of funding through a 1 cent sales tax increase failed at the ballot box.
“Maybe we had the wrong mechanism,” St. Pete Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Steinocher said. “But we all had the same vision.”
The chamber was a strong supporter of the Greenlight initiative. Steinocher joked that he still can’t bring himself to wear a green tie as a result of the loss. But the agency is trying to take what was a huge setback and turn it into a learning experience.
“We didn’t have examples of great transportation in our community,” Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson said.
He pointed out that it seemed odd he traveled to St. Pete to celebrate a project that wouldn’t seemingly benefit his community. But as a PSTA board member he sees it as a way to demonstrate the value of transportation. The underlying hint in his remarks was, if there’s another referendum in the future, examples like Central Avenue BRT may go a long way in boosting public perception.
Regardless, the route will take about two years to implement. PSTA expects to front about $500,000 a year to operate and maintain the route. Miller said he expects to find efficiencies in other routes to pay for the added expense.