The Florida Senate has not placed a $1.25 million appropriation for Bus Rapid Transit in St. Pete in its budget.
The funding would have paid for a BRT pilot program with express bus service running from downtown St. Pete to St. Pete Beach along First Avenues North and South.
According to Clearwater state Sen. Jack Latvala, who sits on the transportation, tourism and economic development appropriations subcommittee, it’s not there because such a program would be redundant.
“There’s a system that’s similar to that in operation down there and when you have to look at priorities, there’s only so much to go around. We just didn’t have the money to do that,” Latvala told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
He’s referring to the popular Central Avenue Beach Trolley that already runs between downtown and the beaches.
There are a couple of problems with that assertion. First, according to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller, the project was chosen because the beach trolley has been so successful.
“We have to demonstrate transit success in order to get federal money,” Miller said. “We use a data-driven approach and that’s why this corridor was chosen because of this successful trolley demonstrates the transit demand.”
He also explained the project would not be duplicative.
“The trolley trips take so long –more than an hour and a half,” Miller said. “So people are only taking it for short trips.”
The BRT, he explained, would be used for people making most or all of the trip from downtown to the beach or vice-versa.
This is meant to be a win for both St. Pete and the county as a whole. Right now tourists who come to the area for the beaches are largely trapped in that one community. Getting to downtown St. Pete for a trip to places like the Dali museum is an all-day endeavor and, quite frankly, a little difficult to plan.
On another side, the argument that Latvala used, that there’s so little funding to go around you have to really pick and choose, may not even be the biggest reason for leaving PSTA out in the cold.
Last year the agency fought hard to get the Greenlight Pinellas one-penny sales tax referendum approved. It would have pumped about $100 million more in funding into the agency than what it currently collects through mostly ad valorem property taxes. That measure failed and without it PSTA is facing a budget shortfall and looming budget cuts.
But it was Brad Miller’s handling of that push that drew the ire of many Greenlight critics and even a few supporters.
The most standout example was when PSTA used grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security for advertising that promoted Greenlight Pinellas. After the issue was brought to light, Miller quickly returned the DHS money, more than $300,000.
The situation got worse when emails were released showing Miller may have knowingly used the money for ads outside the allowable scope despite the fact that Miller claimed it was unintentional.
This brought critics to the door demanding Miller’s resignation.
He didn’t resign and his board voted to support his role as head of the transit agency.
That criticism has quieted since Greenlight Pinellas failed miserably at the ballot box, but whispers of dissatisfaction are likely still around.
It begs the question of whether or not the Senate is withholding any funding for PSTA until there’s a change in leadership.
“I haven’t heard anything about that,” Miller said when asked about it.
Former board chair Ken Welch wouldn’t comment.
Regardless of why the Senate seems to be clutching its PSTA purse strings, those hoping to get the ball rolling on the Central Avenue BRT pilot project are still hopeful.
“We’re going back to Tallahassee this week again to keep working on it in both the House and the Senate,” Miller said, referring to himself and PSTA chair Janet Long.
And Welch said the project is part of the agency’s long-term strategy. He said even if it doesn’t happen this year, that doesn’t mean the project is dead.
“We’ll keep hacking away at it,” Welch said.
There’s also speculation that St. Pete could come to the table with help funding the project. The city has about $2 million from Penny for Pinellas intended for improvements to Central Avenue.
A spokesperson for Mayor Rick Kriseman, Ben Kirby, didn’t say whether any of that money could be used to get BRT rolling, but did say the mayor was supportive of the project and would continue working to send the message that BRT is different than the Central Avenue Beach Trolley.
According to sources, State Sen. Jeff Brandes is considering amending the Senate budget to include the funding. Brandes has not verified whether or not he plans to do that.